The Big Finish by James W. Hall, review by Bruce Jacobs
For almost 30 years, Shamus and Edgar Award winner James W. Hall has been exploring the nuances of his well-worn South Florida protagonist known only as Thorn--"a hard-core loner [living] in a primitive cracker house along the coast in Key Largo and [tying] custom bonefish flies for a living." In The Big Finish, Thorn is getting a little long in the tooth with less of a woman-chasing bent--"some fuse had blown in his libido and his attraction to younger women had faded... he was getting close to twice the age he felt himself to be... a man who'd gone into the ring more than once and hadn't always held his own." Nonetheless, like Michael Connelly's Bosch or Robert B. Parker's Spenser, Thorn ages well. Quick to action when he sees wrongdoing, he remains true to his moral compass even if he can't outrun trouble so easily anymore or throw an uppercut takeout punch. Good thing for him his best friend, former cop Sugarman, is still around to watch his back.
An adopted orphan with a long string of girlfriends, Thorn was happy not to be a family man until, in Dead Last, he discovered that he had a grown son from a one-night stand. Flynn Moss wanted nothing to do with his reclusive father, but his eco-warrior group Earth Liberation Front got crossways with the FBI and he needed Thorn's help. In The Big Finish, Flynn once again calls on Thorn to rescue ELF, this time from a sortie against an environmentally negligent corporate hog farm in North Carolina. Finding family ties to be stronger than he thought, Thorn rounds up a reluctant Sugar and leaves the comfort of his Florida sanctuary to do whatever it takes to save Flynn. Sugar knows that he plays "straight arrow" to Thorn's "loose cannon," and when Thorn's "instincts fail, his next reflex is to start kicking down doors, a monkey wrench in each hand."
Hall has a knack for creating despicable bad guys, be they biker thugs, commercial developers or bent government officials, but he really peaks in The Big Finish. Among the usual corrupt small-town sheriffs and scumbag businessmen (these guys dump toxic pig manure in the fields along the Neuse River) is an ex-con named X-88--a member of an X-tattooed vegan prison gang who chose his namesake number "because it was rugged, an upper-quartile number but nothing fancy. A big, strong, muscled-up B+, a better-than-average digit." The sociopathic X-88 suffocates his victims by stuffing raw hamburger down their throats ("murder by meat"). Although Hall's plot travels a twisting path among drug dealers, rural black tenant farmers, unpapered Mexican farm workers and rogue FBI agents, he's a pro who knows that his out-there characters and plots need to be grounded in a fluid narrative and a protagonist who lives as true to his own code as circumstances permit. Thorn is such a man, and The Big Finish is another slick addition to his chronicles.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.