I must say, it's been quite a thrilling few weeks (and yes, that was a terrible pun). It seems that mysteries and thrillers, or a combination of the two, are the flavor of early 2011. Jack Nolte's The Gray and Guilty Sea is the latest stop, and the front cover certainly gives a fitting introduction: "A battered detective. A dead girl on the beach. A small town on edge."
Garrison Gage is a recluse in a tiny town, a retired private detective who looks at the world through a jaundiced eye. One could hardly blame him: his last case in New York left him a widower and a cripple. Passing his days with crossword puzzles and solitude, his gumshoe instincts are reawakened when he comes across a random dead girl on the beach. So much for retirement.
In The Gray and Guilty Sea, Nolte draws us in right from the get-go. Everything after that is a fast-paced story that keeps you wondering what the next location or contact will reveal. The path is not so much twisted as it is hidden; there are no sudden surprises, but the mystery still takes some time, and a great deal of Gage's energy, to unravel. Woven into the fabric are subplots involving a love interest and an ailing neighbor, as well as said neighbor's teenage granddaughter. Nolte successfully develops these without detracting from the main storyline, adding depth to Gage's character without losing steam.
With his crotchety personality and his love of getting under other people's skins, Gage is a good representation of a character who would be irritating to work with but thoroughly entertaining to observe. His analysis of those around him is spot-on, thus earning a reader's trust in his abilities as a private detective. Unfortunately, other parts of his persona were a bit less credible.
Gage is touted to be a well-versed reader, a connoisseur of jazz, an appreciator of art, and yet a man of simple pleasures. This isn't to say that a person can't be that complex, but something about the presentation of these personality traits —subtle shifts in Gage's speaking style, perhaps — make them difficult to integrate. Instances of him reading philosophy or listening to Coltrane might have boosted the legitimacy of these claims. In a similar manner, the commonality of interests between him and Carmen is a little too perfect, and equally unsupported from his previous interactions with her. Mysteries have a tendency to turn readers into skeptics, digging deeper into characters than they might otherwise do; thus the bar for characterizations is set that much higher. In the end, I disregarded the extraneous information in order to avoid losing faith in the rest of the story.
For the most part, the novel is well-written, with a delivery that is efficient without becoming brusque. It meshed well with Gage's voice, his inner monologues flowing seamlessly into his spoken words. Even so, there were scattered passages in which it was glaringly obvious that someone breezed through the editing process. Awkwardly worded sentences, as well as multiple issues with homophones (eg. "waved" for "waived", "not" for "naught") were bothersome, but what really got me were two instances in which characters' names were actually changed: "Tommy" for "Jimmy" and "Angie" for "Zoe". They jarred me right out of the storyline, and it took some effort to convince myself to ignore them long enough to rekindle my interest in the book.
Nolte has a good grasp of emotion and human responses and credible actions. In that respect, The Gray and Guilty Sea is quite an enjoyable novel that engages a reader on multiple levels. The ending itself was more than satisfactory. Still, convenient coincidences and forced details diminished its plausibility. Methinks that Gage's cynicism is contagious.
(Review copy provided by the author)