The Korea Herald


New Books

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 25, 2011 - 19:20

    • Link copied

When an obituary is more than just an obit

Dead Last
By James W. Hall

The newspaper obituary isn‘t just the announcement of a person’s death and service schedule. Obits often are homages to a life well lived, an insightful look at a person and the impact he or she had on their world.

But in the intriguing “Dead Last,” the obit becomes a sinister weapon that takes aim at Thorn, James W. Hall‘s perennial Key Largo beach bum.

Thorn has never been the most sociable of characters -- content to eke out a living tying fishing flies, enjoying “the wayward scent of wilderness” and becoming involved with one nefarious crime after another.

But the death of Rusty Stabler, his wife of one month, throws Thorn into grief-fueled rage of which he has little control. “Some crucial atom inside him had cracked apart and all the wild-eyed craziness ... stabilized by her presence went into a state of fission.” Nearly suicidal, Thorn starts burning everything he owns -- clothes, furniture, mementoes. The bonfire “cleansing” is in full force when Buddha Hilton, the 19-year-old sheriff of Starkville, Okla., shows up at Thorn’s Key Largo house. Michaela Stabler, a high-profile lawyer who was Buddha‘s adoptive mother and Rusty’s aunt, was murdered in her bed in Starkville. Rusty‘s newspaper obituary was placed next to the body.

The murder scene is eerily similar to “Miami Ops,” a failing TV crime show being filmed in South Florida that is written by Sawyer Moss and stars his twin brother, Flynn. Adding to the coincidence, the Moss brothers are the only sons of April Moss, the newspaper obit writer and an old acquaintance of Thorn.

Buddha has little use for Thorn and both are out of their comfort zones in the urban jungle of Miami. But they make a credible detective team as they investigate whether the growing pattern of murders is a ploy for better TV ratings.

Hall always has made it easy to want to get lost with Thorn as he wanders Florida and this 12th outing continues those high standards. “Dead Last” works as an exciting detective novel but also provides an insightful look at grief, at rising above pain and proves that adage about when one door shuts, another opens. The usually laconic Thorn is a fury-filled machine whose grief makes him ready to slash out at anyone in his way.

The calm Buddha, who bears the physical marks of horrendous abuse as a child, sees through Thorn and forces him to deal with his grief. The scene where Buddha passes on her observations to Thorn about his personality is an inspiring moment full of humor and truth. A surprising plot twist signals a change for Thorn that he may not be equipped to handle.

“Dead Last’s” solid story and characters who continue to grow show why Hall, who retired in 2009 as a literature professor at Florida International University, ranks at the top echelon of Florida mystery writers. (MCT)

The life of ‘an impossible genius’

Tolstoy: A Russian Life“
By Rosamund Bartlett
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

This month marks 100 years since the death of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who lived a life more tempestuous, contradictory, telling and complex than any of the characters he created.

The author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” has been subjected to biographical treatment many times and has survived all intact, including Henri Troyat’s majestic account.

The newest tale of the titan, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life,” comes from Rosamund Bartlett, an English scholar who specializes in Russian cultural history. Her books include “Chekhov: Scenes from A Life” and translations of Chekhov’s writings.

Tolstoy was “tied to Russia body and soul,” Bartlett writes. You’ll learn about both.

Her leisurely, sympathetic take on Tolstoy offers a perspective different from earlier ones. She concentrates much less on the literature than on the man; the aristocrat who’d dress like a peasant, the sybarite who’d turn ascetic, the nihilist who’d extol piety, the “devout Orthodox communicant” who’d become a critic of the church.

It’s also, in a way, attuned to this era of reality TV. Bartlett looks at Tolstoy’s family life, especially his troubled marriage. This guy was no fun around the dacha. There are instances when he seems sprung from the imagination of Dostoevsky.

For all the social, political and theological views that would mark his life as “conscience of the nation,” Tolstoy held a very conservative, very common outlook when it came to wife Sonya’s role: she’d give birth to children. But Tolstoy often neglected them even as he wanted to mold and educate her “according to his own tastes.”

The much younger Sonya accepted that stricture for a very long time. She’d also try to kill herself more than once, and eventually would be diagnosed as paranoid and hysterical. Sonya finally feared poverty. Tolstoy, in his will, wanted to put all his writing after 1881 in the public domain.

Their estrangement culminated with the exit of the 82-year old Tolstoy, who “had long yearned to leave home and set off on foot with nothing but the clothes on his back as a wanderer.” He left in the middle of the night with his personal physician so she couldn‘t follow him.

But Tolstoy became ill. Once “the most famous man in Russia,” he died in a “remote railroad station in Ryazan province.”

Sonya, who’d attempted to drown herself when she learned he’d left her, was kept by his friends from seeing him until he was unconscious. Sonya would write her account of life with “an impossible genius.” Her own last years, Bartlett says, “were ones of loneliness and self-recrimination.”

Bartlett covers much more, of course, in an extensively researched text, from the history of the family to how the Bolsheviks and the Soviets sought to celebrate and claim him, how the Tolstoyans fared after his death and what influence he may have in today’s Russia.

It‘s all informed, often engrossing. But, by story’s end, what lingers is the haunting opening line of “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (MCT)