It was a shrewd marketing move for author Jack Nolte to entitle his first mystery novel The Gray and Guilty Sea. It makes it nearly irresistible for an old John D. MacDonald fan like me, still suffering the Aching Purple Bereavement of going a quarter century without another color-coded Travis McGee novel.
On the other hand, he set a high bar for himself through the implied comparison. Many fictional detectives have been touted as “the new Travis McGee” since MacDonald’s death, but (in my opinion) none of them has quite lived up to that standard.
Nolte’s detective, Garrison Gage, doesn’t, either.
But he’s still pretty good.
Garrison Gage is a retired New York private investigator. He moved to the Oregon coast, a town called Barnacle Bluffs, after a criminal he was pursuing murdered his beloved wife and smashed his knee, crippling him for life. He walks with a cane. Since retirement he has been vegetating. He spends his days doing crossword puzzles, and takes a daily walk on the beach. He’s not entirely cut off. He has a couple friends in town—the woman who used to be his cleaning lady, now dying of cancer and worrying about the teenage granddaughter she looks after, and a former FBI agent who runs a used book store.
One day on his beach walk, Gage discovers a drowned teenage girl, washed up on shore. Ligature marks on her wrists and ankles indicate she has been tied up recently for some reason. When the local police (whom Gage doesn’t entirely trust) are unable to identify her, Gage finds himself, almost unwillingly, somehow compelled to dust off his old investigative skills and try to put a name on her and get word to her family.
Someone out there wants the girl to remain a Jane Doe. Someone powerful and ruthless. Gage will put his life at risk before he’s done, but he will also find a new reason for living.
I think author Nolte hasn’t quite mastered his craft yet. I figured out whodunnit, not through my powers of ratiocination, but just by the way he handled a particular character. He does a great job of evoking the stormy atmosphere of the Oregon coast, but there are perhaps too many poetic descriptions of the sky—we don’t need to be told it’s gray and rainy eight different ways.
The approaching storm stretched along the horizon like like an old metal coil, the hint of orange like rust in the dark, tightly-wound clouds. Above the clouds, the sky was flat and sterile like dull silver; beneath the clouds, only the white-capped swells broke up the gray monotony of the ocean. It would be dark in twenty minutes.
I liked the way Nolte handled his characters. First impressions in novels tend to be dispositive—what people look like is what they are. Nolte has a way of presenting characters who at first appear hostile or stupid, but turn out on closer acquaintance to be something else altogether (and vice versa). At one point he discovers that a character who seems to be a thoroughgoing teenage rebel is in fact attending a weekly Bible study, and he seems to regard that as a positive thing (though he insists, for some reason, on not capitalizing the word “bible”). Gage and his love interest do not jump into bed together at the first opportunity (though that has a lot to do with the fact that they’re both emotionally damaged, more than any commitment to traditional sexual morality).
She was someone who bruised easily, who obsessed about little things, who worried and fretted and wrapped all this anxiety in the useful but burdensome cloak of modern womanhood. She had to be strong. She had to be tough. In her line of work, she spent a lot of time swimming with the sharks, after all, and weakness was not allowed. But it was there in her eyes. There was never any hiding it from the eyes.
I like the way Jack Nolte handles himself with words and characters. I look for good things from him. I’ve already downloaded the Kindle edition of the next book, A Plunder By Pilgrims (you’ll note there’s no color in that title).
Recommended. Cautions, as usual, for language, violence, and adult situations.
Update: On reading A Plunder By Pilgrims, I discovered it’s not a sequel to The Gray and Guilty Sea, but the original short story in which the Garrison Gage character was introduced. It’s not a rip-off, however, as it only costs 99 cents.