March 10, 2010

Believable characters roam a familiar city


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At the start of Gerry Boyle's sixth mystery, two storylines emerge that at first seem related only by coincidence.

There's 22-year-old Brandon Blake, a loaner whose mother died at sea two decades earlier. He's preparing for a law-enforcement career by taking courses in South Portland.

While riding with a Portland cop as part of his training, Blake and the officer are called to break up a brawl, where Blake earns the hatred of repeat offender Joel Fuller. ''Eye for an eye, dude,'' Fuller mutters to him before he's led off to jail.

Just when you think the story will play out between aspiring lawman Blake and psychopath Fuller, there's a new dimension. A man named Lucky, presumably drowned 20 years earlier on the boat that went down with Blake's mother, shows up in Portland with tons of money and an exotic Eastern European girlfriend.

For a while, the two plots -- one involving psychopath Fuller who wants to break Brandon's knees, the other about strange Lucky returned from the dead -- run parallel yet mostly separate.

All that changes when Fuller, out of prison and reconnected with his ruthless but dumb buddy Kelvin, decides to extort money from Brandon and Lucky.

''These guys are big time,'' Joel tells Kelvin. ''Mister Smooth there spends more money in a week than you and me see in a year. Megabucks, dude. Big Time.''

As unexpected details unfold in Boyle's riveting mystery, readers of ''Port City Shakedown'' are in for a treat. His characters are tough, believable and dangerous. The setting is so specific that readers familiar with the Portland area will easily picture good guys and bad tailing one another around the peninsula, and sailing perilous waters east of Casco Bay.

Description and dialogue in this mystery fit every character and situation; always serving to advance the story. Take the scene where Joel Fuller, after sweet-talking a judge into an early release from prison, reveals pent-up hatred during his first taste of freedom.

''The jail van dropped Joel Fuller on Congress Street at Longfellow Square,'' Boyle writes. ''He flipped the van off as it pulled away. Not as good as a rock through the back window, but better than nothing.''

In another passage, Lucky the survivor and expert sailor gives Blake his take on life at sea on a bad day.

''Nothing can (help), at a certain point,'' he says. '' The ocean is a big, powerful thing. We're just little ants out there, living on a little skill and a lot of luck.''

For Boyle, ''Port City Shakedown'' is a big departure from previous mystery novels. Each of the earlier five, beginning with ''Deadline'' in 1993, were first-person narratives featuring a tough middle-aged journalist named McMorrow.

The reporter is scrapped in this latest, replaced by young Brandon Blake, the complex aspiring cop who lives in an old Chris-Craft cabin cruiser tied up at a Portland marina. The new mystery is told in the third person.

Like the main character in his earlier mysteries, Boyle is a seasoned journalist. He spent years writing for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville as well as other Maine newspapers. He's the editor of Colby Magazine published by Colby College in Waterville, and contributed to two nonfiction books published by Down East in Camden. He lives in China.

New to Boyle's just-published mystery is a delightful character named Mia. In the book, she's a recent Colby College graduate who becomes Blake's girlfriend and partner in what spirals into a fight for life. Her observations contribute drama, as in the following scene where the boat called ''Bay Witch'' struggles through a storm with Brandon Blake at the helm.

''She wondered,'' writes Boyle, ''if there wasn't a part of Brandon that was driven to find his mother even if it meant following her into this black abyss. Even if it meant feeling the terror Nikki had felt, the panic, the final acceptance that her life was going to end.''

''Port City Shakedown'' is one of the best mysteries to come out of the state in recent years. Among Maine writers who've praised the book is Monica Wood, who calls Boyle ''a seasoned writer'' who knows his craft well.

''The story clips along in exquisite suspense,'' writes Wood, ''partly because Boyle is great at plotting and partly because we come to care deeply about Brandon and his girlfriend.''

You will too.

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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