Writing a homicide book was not a career jump for Tom Turner—his earlier years were spent as an award-winning ad agency copywriter, then as a private investigator for Con Top in West Palm Beach and, after that, as a buyer, renovator and seller of houses in Palm Beach—all of which figure in Turner’s debut fiction, Palm Beach Nasty (The Permanent Press).
No murder mystery—because it’s pretty obvious who killed young Daryl Bill, found hanging from a banyan tree when the story begins, and later Cynthia, a soused older babe on the make—the primary appeal of the book is its protagonist, 36-year-old, already burned-out Dartmouth grad Detective Charlie Crawford, formerly of the New York Police Department, and his short, fat, foul-talking, beloved partner Mort Ott, from the Cleveland PD. Charlie’s bored with his new life. As the opening sentence has it, he “really missed the murder and mayhem up in New York. Which was weird, since the whole reason he’d gone south was to get away from it all.”
Though the back flap notes that Turner now lives in Charleston, South Caroliba, Palm Beach claims his soul. Much of the pleasure of the book is reading about the big-money honchos and wannabes who hang around this fabled pink and green paradise, “maintaining a perpetual tan and dressed like a preppie.” Murder is rare in Palm, and so, when Charlie responds to two murders that may not have been committed by the same perp, his life picks up. Although the police procedural aspects show off Turner’s experience as a PI, verisimilitude does not redeem the sense of a new writer working the elements of fiction. The plot, heavily reliant on coincidence, and the characters indistinguishable in voice except when identified, fade into a general scenario involving beautiful women, hitmen and a perverse Wall Street-fueled villain.
There are some nice passages: “Crawford just walked away, knowing Ott could read him like he had subtitles.” And unusual observations: “Even an art history minor from Hofstra University could recognize [the picture]”—and expected critical hits: “He had been told Boca had more cosmetic surgeons than landscapers, pool guys and personal injury lawyers put together.” The plot moves, if slowly, with a couple of exciting chase scenes. Palm Beach Nasty may not be A-fiction, but it could make an afternoon zip by.