Mon September 1, 2003
A Thin Difference
The prolific Frank Turner Hollon has just published his third novel. At first, A Thin Difference seems like many another crime novel you have read.
By Don Noble
The prolific Frank Turner Hollon has just published his third and fourth novels. The fourth I will get to in the coming weeks. The third, A Thin Difference, is set in Baldwin County, Alabama, in Loxley and Gulf Shores, and has as its protagonist an attorney. Frank Hollon is an attorney who has practiced for thirty years in Baldwin County. His first two novels were set in a retirement home and the state prison. Here he is staying very close to what he knows.
At first, A Thin Difference seems like many another crime novel you have read. Jack Skinner is a fairly stereotypical hero. He is middle-aged, alone, and drinks far too much. He takes any case that walks through the door, because he has troubles with back taxes and the IRS is on the verge of having him arrested.
He has a crummy office and a faithful, long-suffering, and seldom-paid secretary named Rose, who is always on the verge of leaving him. Jack Skinner sweats a lot, but then who doesn?t in Baldwin County, and he eats mainly cheeseburgers washed down with whiskey at Buddy?s Bar and Grill.
We learn a lot fast about Jack in this short novel, and we learn it in a style, a tone of voice that comes perilously close to parody of Mickey Spillane or of Dashiell Hammett.
Here is the first paragraph: ?They never call before they rob the bank. It?s always afterwards. After they?ve killed their wives, or sold a pound of dope at the truck stop, or raped the schoolgirl down the street. Then they call their lawyer. Then they want things to be like they used to be.?
When Jack is telling the story of his so-called domestic life, he explains it like this: ?My first wife took the children. The second wife took the money. And the third wife, well, when she left she took with her my fondness for women in general. I have to laugh when I think about her, standing in the kitchen, arms crossed, explaining how she fell in love with the plumber.?
Jack has a son, Mark, a perfectly lazy lad, and two daughters who figure in this novel: an older one, Becky, who hates him at white heat for what she believes are his unforgiveable sins, and Kelly, younger, who is a lost soul, a drug addict who is essentially homeless, hopeless, and very pretty. Her life is an open wound for Jack.
The plot begins conventionally enough. A client, Brad Caine, is arrested for murder and burglary and hires Jack to defend him. Caine is in fact a convicted burglar, but appears to have gone straight and may actually be innocent. He gives Jack a $5000 retainer and Jack is certainly going to do his best.
The reader is not sure about Caine, and neither is Jack, but everybody deserves a vigorous defense, no? Jack moves through his paces. He prepares Caine for testifying, hires Junior Mifflin, a private investigator, to check out Caine?s story and chase down other possible suspects.
The novel works in the most conventional ways. The DA, Deborah Webb, has organized her case well, and Jack is fighting uphill. It all seems satisfying enough, an homage to a familiar genre, very sunbelt noir, a typical mystery set in steamy L.A.?in this case, Lower Alabama.
But then it turns into Redneck Riviera Retribution. There are surprises and turns in the plot which I cannot and will not describe?it would ruin the effect?but I promise you they are jolting, shocking, and genuinely unexpected. Without them, this would have been a respectable seedy-lawyer novel; with these surprises Hollon?s novel jumps a level and finally leaves the reader wondering seriously about the questions of parental responsibility, justice, and revenge served very cold, if revenge is in fact what we are looking at.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.