The White Lie

Jul 14, 2014

“The White Lie: A Novel”
Author: Philip Shirley
Publisher: Mindbridge Press
Pages: 276
Price: $15.95 (Paperback)

Philip Shirley, originally an Alabamian, has had a highly successful career in advertising and public relations in Jackson, Mississippi. Nevertheless, from time to time, Shirley has made forays into writing other than copyrighting: “Endings,” a volume of poetry, “Sweet Spot: 125 Years of Baseball and the Louisville Slugger,” a nonfiction work, and the respectable fiction debut, “Oh Don’t You Cry for Me,” a volume of short stories.

Now he has tried his hand at the action thriller.

In some ways, Shirley has followed the old dictum, write about what you know. His protagonist Peter Brantley is a successful married advertising executive in 1998 Jackson, Mississippi. One day after work, in his Brooks Brothers shirt and red- striped tie, Brantley is carjacked, at gunpoint, by a stinking, pony-tailed thug and forced to drive him out of town. Sensing, probably correctly, that he will be killed, Peter crashes the car and escapes with, it turns out, a gym bag of cocaine worth a fortune.

Of course, he should call the police at once, but there are other emotional factors at work.

Peter’s brother Christopher OD’d and the guilt, however ill-founded, has maimed Peter emotionally, affecting both his performance at work and the health of his marriage to Mary Beth.

In what surely every reader will recognize as a grave error, Peter decides to outsmart the bad guys, pretend to sell them back their cocaine, take their money—which he will not keep!—and destroy the drugs so they can never hurt others as they had hurt Christopher.

Amateurs playing at being professionals will suffer only humiliation at Tuesday night karaoke or onstage at The Improv. Amateurs messing with stone cold killers is another matter. Peter thinks some of the CEO’s he has dealt with were tough guys. Not like this!

The bad guys Peter will be trying to outsmart are older, experienced criminals; Peter and his wife would seem to be no match.

Mary Beth, it must be said, is a sensible woman who at first wants nothing to do with this scheme but both husband and wife find the dangerous game stimulating and good for their marriage: “she felt an undeniable sexual tension in the danger they were about to face together.” (If thrills are needed, sky diving or bungee jumping would be safer.)

The plan they hatch is about what any devoted watcher of television crime drama would cook up: plausible but too complicated. As the Brantleys get in deeper, however, the novel becomes more engaging. I found myself rooting for this pair of innocents in over their heads.

The foolproof scheme unravels, of course, into shoot-outs, car chases, chaos and blood, and it falls to Mary Beth, a lobbyist/researcher by trade, to go undercover as a femme fatale and save the day. Happily, she pulls it off.

If more thrillers are planned, Shirley might be well-advised to speed up the action—cut the dialog by half and the description by three quarters. The reader does not need to know that the Brantleys’ deck has a “round table with a red and white tablecloth and a candle… beside an acrylic salt shaker and pepper grinder built into one.”

Of course Shirley sees his novel as a movie, but let Hollywood decorate its own sets.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”