the 10th time – in DuBois’ latest

Plenty of mystery writers look to Massachusetts or Maine for inspiration, but fewer choose New Hampshire as a setting for their tales of murder and mayhem. Perhaps their reluctance to explore the Granite State stems from the way Brendan DuBois, author of “Blood Foam,” “Fatal Harbor” and other New Hampshire thrillers has so emphatically staked out the seacoast territory in his novels featuring journalist and former Department of Defense research analyst Lewis Cole.

The 10th Cole adventure finds the erstwhile magazine columnist at a particularly low ebb. Out of work, romantically unattached, his seaside home nearly destroyed by arson (and with no insurance settlement check in sight), Cole has more than his fair share of personal trouble to attend to. But he’s also deeply concerned about the fate of one of his closest friends, Felix Tinios, one-time Boston mob enforcer turned independent “security consultant.”

Felix is on trial for his life, accused of the execution-style shooting of Fletcher Moore, a well-respected local businessman from the seaside town of Tyler. Felix was recorded entering and leaving the crime scene, his fingerprints were found scattered throughout the premises, and his gun, the presumed murder weapon, was discovered nearby. It looks like a slam-dunk conviction, especially considering the lackluster performance of Felix’s second-choice defense attorney.

Nothing about the situation makes sense to Cole. Although he and Felix have previously shared experiences “edging right up to that mysterious and shifting line separating law from lawlessness,” Cole can’t believe his friend would be so cold-blooded and sloppy. Most of all, Cole can’t understand why his friend would cut off all communication with him, even refusing to allow him to visit him in jail.

Luckily, Cole is given an excuse to investigate the Fletcher Moore killing on his own, thanks to the intervention of a mysterious Federal agent, who urges Cole to prove Felix innocent before Tinios is killed while waiting to testify. Cole takes the threat seriously, and soon he’s butting heads with various witnesses and officers of the court, not to mention violent gangsters.

Lewis Cole is at his best when he’s styling himself as the not-much-to-lose wiseguy, down on his luck but not out for the count. His friendship with Felix will remind mystery fans of other “good” guy/ “bad” guy duos, from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Hawk to Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. It’s not a wildly original relationship, but it has enough substance and quirkiness to be convincing and interesting.

DuBois’s latest works well enough as a stand-alone adventure, but there has been enough narrative continuity throughout the past several volumes in the series that readers familiar with the earlier books are likely to appreciate “Storm Cell” more than newcomers might. DuBois orchestrates the introductions of the various returning cast members with finesse, but there’s a lot of shared history here to keep track off.

Chief among the holdovers is newspaper editor Paula Quinn. A former flame of Cole’s, she’s now engaged, but the sudden absence of a ring on her finger suggests that her status might have changed recently. DuBois handles their rekindled relationship with the right amount of romance, wit and sensuality.

The New Hampshire seacoast DuBois conjures up doesn’t completely mesh with reality. Scenes are set in such real-life locations as Boxford, Mass., but even the best GPS device won’t be able to direct a driver to the towns of Tyler, Porter or Exonia (home of renowned Phillips Exonia Academy). DuBois gives his fictional settings enough convincing detail to intrigue non-residents and satisfy a local’s need for verisimilitude. He understands how things work in a rapidly changing beach community and how the promise of a long-delayed windfall might prove morally corrosive to some inhabitants.

In “Storm Cell,” DuBois displays his expertise at balancing action and introspection, providing plenty of tense confrontations, clever reversals and surprising reveals, as well as many more character-based but still compelling scenes. A lot happens at the narrative’s climax, but readers are likely to be struck hardest by the novel’s denouement. The anticipation of what might happen next to Lewis Cole will spur many to contemplate exactly why this hard-luck investigator is so likeable and how DuBois’s signature crime series works so well.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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