When a former D.A. decides to become a novelist, don’t expect him to write about wizards or Victorian romance. He’ll head straight to the scene of the crime.
Vincent Scarsella worked as a prosecutor in Buffalo and investigated attorney misconduct for New York State before he retired to Florida in 2010. He honed his writing skills on short stories and, earlier this year, published his first novel, “The Anonymous Man” (Aignos Publishing; 247 pages; $14.95).
Rough around the edges, “The Anonymous Man” gets decent marks for creativity and intricacy; somewhat lower grades in believability and editing.
For the forgiving Western New Yorker, though, it’s a fast read that runs through familiar local settings to a satisfying conclusion.
Scarsella starts with the “funeral” of Jerry Shaw, an overweight computer geek who has faked his own death to claim millions in life insurance money for himself, his nasty wife and his wife’s handsome, conniving co-worker. The setup of the death is clever even, though the reasons for it don’t make much sense.
Jerry never comes across as a guy so greedy that he would give up absolutely everything – home, friends, family – for a very small fortune. His wife, Holly, is painted so harshly that Jerry’s sacrifice seems ridiculous. And their co-conspirator, Jeff, is slimy from the start.
Perhaps thinking cinematically, Scarsella sets Jerry’s funeral in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, giving the deceased lots of room to hide while he peeks at the ceremony. Frustration sets in quickly for readers, though, who wonder why this “dead” guy decides to haunt his family and later his old neighborhood, risking discovery, before heading out of town.
The web of deceit quickly becomes a knot for the three perpetrators, as no one sticks to their part. Jerry doesn’t wait a day before he cracks and breaks out of his assigned role. Holly and Jeff are just as quick to jump into bed together, and a fourth party to the fraud – who didn’t know what he was getting into – starts making blackmail demands.
Meanwhile, the insurance company smells a rat and hires Jack Fox, a former detective and private investigator, now working fraud cases.
Fox is Scarsella’s only sympathetic character, and you wish the writer spent more time developing him. We’d like to get inside his head as he puts together what Jerry and Co. have been up to. Was Jerry’s “death” really an accident? Was it murder? Or, is there something else going on here?
“The Anonymous Man” – the title comes from a comic book hero Jerry creates, and somehow imagines himself to be – takes this good premise on a bumpy ride from Lackawanna to Binghamton and Florida. Sometimes you want to keep turning the pages; other times, the typos, glitches (a red-eye flight from Philadelphia to Buffalo?), and inconsistencies drive you to distraction.
Such are the perils of so-called “royalty-based” publishers who don’t hinder their authors with things like proofreaders. Scarsella has the makings of a good storyteller. When he leans more on his own experience in law, and gets some editing help, he and Fox could go places.
Not all detectives are sure-footed in their professional lives while their personal lives are a mess. Some, like young Benji Golden, are a mess in both ways, as we see in “Runaway Man,” by David Handler (Minotaur Books; 246 pages; $24.99). Benji, with help from his mother, runs Golden Legal Services, an agency begun by his late father, a former police officer. Benji has a way of figuring things out a little too late, which is especially dangerous for those around him. The bodies of innocent people pile pretty deeply here before the barely believable resolution. Most of the setup you see coming; some of it flies in out of the blue sky. But like the pulp novels of yesterday, none of that is worrisome because Handler keeps things racing along. In less than 250 pages, Benji is ready for his next step toward manhood and we’re ready for the next book.
With the cool days and longer nights of fall, new adventures by popular authors arrive to push the breezy beach reads off the table. Kathy Reichs, creator of the “Bones” series, continues to take the literary version of Temperance Brennan into darker, more dangerous places. In “Bones of the Lost” (Scribner; 324 pages; $26.99), Tempe’s daughter (much more grown-up than in the TV show) enlists in the military while Tempe’s marriage is collapsing. Much more layered than the weekly series, the book keeps its star character engaging without piling on the melodrama. Reichs is better at this than many serial authors. With 16 Bones books out there, if you haven’t dug into them, it could be time to dig in.
Dexter is done on TV and now comes “Dexter’s Final Cut” (Doubleday; 352 pages; $28.95). Author Jeff Lindsay takes his cue from Dexter’s time in Hollywood by revealing the dark side of celebrity and fantasy as it plays out on film. Is this really the end for Dexter in print? Perhaps. But one thing Lindsay has shown again and again is, you can’t keep a good killer down.
And even death can’t keep some writers down. Jesse Stone (played on TV by Tom Selleck) returns in “Robert B. Parker’s Damned If You Do,” by Michael Bradman (Putnam; 271 pages; $26.95). Parker, who died in 2010, left a solid template on which his characters can live, with Bradman’s help.
Felix Francis does the same for his father’s legacy with “Dick Francis’s Refusal,” (Putnam, 371 pages; $26.95), which brings back Sid Hailey. It was easy for Felix to pick up the baton, since he worked side by side with his famous father for a number of years before Dick Francis died in 1989.
Melinda Miller is a News staff reporter.