by Cynthia Chow
This week we have a review of Treasure Coast, a new mystery by Tom Kakonis just released by the brand new publishing company Brash Books (check out our interview in this issue with Brash Books owner Lee Goldberg). We also have an interesting interview with Tom. At the end of this post are details on how to enter to win a copy of Treasure Coast, and a link to purchase the book where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Treasure Coast By Tom Kakonis
Review by Cynthia Chow
Jim Merriman is a man accustomed to making empty promises, just to make his life easier. However, at his sister’s deathbed, she forces him to utter a declaration to watch out for her son. Despite Jim’s intention to avoid obligations, he finds himself trying to save Leon, a hapless twenty-one year-old who chose the wrong man to idolize as a father figure. A former card player who now works as an assistant clerk in a bookstore, Jim has lost none of his talent as a pathological liar. His tales have Leon looking to Jim for help with a forty-five thousand dollar gambling debt.
This is a tale of swindlers, con artists, and scammers. Readers are introduced to shady characters whose lives intersect as they pursue dreams of wealth and happiness. Or at least, wealth. Bryce “Noble” Norbert Bott is a self-declared reverend who, with his assistant Waneta, sells tombstones, until they stumble across the more lucrative scheme of psychic readings for the desperate. As it turns out, Bryce may be the only one who disbelieves Waneta’s messages from the dead as her health falters and her utterings prove prophetic. Chasing Leon are two leg-breakers, one whose racist, sexist, profane, and sociopathic tendencies have his own boss concerned enough to send along a minder for the behemoth-sized Morris Biggs Junior. A story like this requires a tempting femme fatale, although in this instance, the alluring Mrs. Billie Swetts is in pursuit of a deeper meaning in her life. Being the fifth trophy wife of Big Lonnie has left her curiously unfilled and “uncentered.”
Dark humor prevails in this tale of damaged souls who are flawed, yet desire something meaningful in their lives. A kidnapping scheme goes about as weird as it can. In a blend of Pain and Gain and Ruthless People, there is a real sense of jeopardy as the reader knows the worst is yet to come. These characters may be salvageable, if not redeemable, as they attempt to pull the swindle that will set them up for life. Jim and his unlikely allies will be lucky to escape with their lives. As bleak as their futures may be, the ironic tone and witty dialogue prevent the novel from becoming too morbid. The Florida setting enhances the amoral characters whose games of survival cause shifting loyalties, targets, and even dreams in this sardonic and dark comic portrayal of criminals, con artists, and survivors.
Use this link to purchase this book and a portion goes to help support KRL:
Interview Tom Kakonis
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Tom: The simplest answer to this question is about fifty of my present (and counting) 83 years. However, during that half-century of dreamy aspiration I’ve pursued the goal of fiction writing with varying degrees of focus and intensity. In the beginning I wrote some amateurish and derivative short stories that, on re-reading, were positively dreadful. The first novel I completed was evidently good enough to serve as a PhD dissertation from the U of Iowa Writers Workshop, but not impressive enough to spark any interest from the publishing industry. Faced with that failure and, like most college professors, chronically poor, I drifted into the textbook business, co-writing and editing a dozen or so college texts, none of which made any money apart from the minuscule advances offered for such efforts in those days. During those decades I was periodically struck with an inspiration and scribbled a few more novels, none of which ever found a publisher. Late in my fifties, with nothing better to do, I felt impelled to try once more. And that’s when my luck changed.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? A little about it?
Tom: My first published novel appeared in 1988 under the title Michigan Roll. During its writing the working title was God’s Toy, taken from a line quoted by a character in the book: “Chance is the toy of God.” I thought at the time it was the most appropriate title for the story unfolding. Still do, for that matter. However, my editor at St. Martin’s Press gently pointed out that a title like that might give the impression it was a religious book, which of course it decidedly is not. And so, reluctantly, I altered the title.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Tom: As a matter of fact, Michigan Roll was my first venture into what might be called the crime fiction genre. Prior to that, all of the unpublished stories and novels mentioned above could be categorized as “serious” or “literary” fiction. I put those descriptive adjectives in quotes because of their patronizing, not to say snobbish, tone. The very real danger of a literary education for the aspiring writer is just that attitude of remote superiority fostered by such an education. This is not to say that reading the classics is not a useful element in the development of a writer’s style and in enlarging his/her world view. However, and speaking strictly for myself, I can only say that when I tried to write what I thought (and had been taught) was literary fiction, nobody wanted to read it. Now I write stories centered on complex characters that happen to be involved in the commission of violent crimes.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Tom: The novel Treasure Coast began, as so often was the case for me, out of some murky memories from the past. Like the central character, Jim Merriman, I had participated in a death watch for an older sister many years ago, and the sensory images from that difficult time still resonated in my memory. The setting came easily for me, since I had spent a considerable amount of time in the North Palm Beach, Florida, area. The villains in the novel, Hector and Junior and, I suppose to an extent, Bryce Bott, are without exception products of my overheated imagination. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, I do not mingle socially with such types in my day-to-day life. I have, however, been lucky enough to be around them in largely male settings (the army, swinging a sledge on the railroad, lifeguarding, gym rat, etc.) and thusly to acquire some of their otherwise un-inventible vernacular. I describe Jim Merriman as the central character, but that is not entirely accurate. Rather do I consider Treasure Coast a novel with an ensemble cast, some of whom are available for a sequel, should it ever emerge.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Tom: Definitely entertainment. Naturally, like all writers, I’m cheered when a reader picks up on what might be called a “theme,” but as I indicated in my earlier response, I’ve given up all pretensions to literary writing.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Tom: When I know I’m going to be engaged in a long-term project like a novel, I establish a very rigid schedule and do my best to adhere to it as strictly as I can. Because I’m a slow and methodical writer, what that translates into is 6-8 hours of work a day, every day, till the project is finished, usually about a year later.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Tom: I don’t do any serious outlining, though I may use a rough, scratch outline to keep me on track for the chapter/segment I’m immediately involved with. For the totality of the book, though, the answer to this question is no. Starting out, I do have a very blurry vision of the ending, but during the actual process of writing, certain characters can literally take over and re-direct even the best laid plans.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Tom: Yes, it was extremely difficult, and part of that difficulty was of my own doing. Not until I began writing commercial fiction was I able to find a publisher.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Tom: Having revealed my superannuated condition elsewhere in this interview, I trust you can appreciate the fact that my principal nightly goal is to wake up the next morning still registering a pulse. If, however, I’m granted a bit more time before joining that choir invisible, I would like to produce three more novels (each of them currently dancing around in my head) and one collection of short stories.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Tom: I believe there is a great deal to be learned about structuring a story by studying the work of Joseph Conrad. Similarly with the fiction of Stephen Crane, particularly those two peerless stories, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel. Finally, no writer of the 20th century did it better, in my opinion, than Flannery O’Connor. Is there ever a short story to combine comedy and horror as successfully as she does in A Good Man is Hard to Find.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Tom: Enough research to make all my settings faithful to the reality of place at the time setting of the story. Enough so a reader, if so inclined, could travel to any such place and recognize it instantly from the description in the novel. In the past what this typically required was my visiting and often spending considerable time in a venue less than familiar to me. The 1993 novel Shadow Counter, set in Las Vegas, is an apt example of this approach to research.
KRL: What do you read?
Tom: It would perhaps be easier for me to describe what I don’t read. With a few exceptions I don’t read any science fiction, or romance or horror (god knows, there’s enough horror readily at hand in this sorry world), or what they’re pleased to call literary fiction nowadays, or biographies of contemporary political figures whose lives and accomplishments are mostly as ephemeral as the whisper of the wind, or celebrity tell-alls, even less substantial, if that’s possible. Which leaves me, I guess, with only the re-reading of what I deem to be the classics of fiction writing, to read them slowly now, like a writer more than a casual reader, this time to see how it was done, not to put them in some sort of academic box. The last one of these I read was Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. I recommend it.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Tom: I think I must like western movies best, since they’re the ones that come first to mind. For example, some of the best writing the late Elmore Leonard did provided the basis for two outstanding westerns, Valdez is Coming (a classic revenge tale) and Hombre, featuring one of Leonard’s manliest characters. I also enjoyed director Sam Peckinpah’s twisted vision of the world in The Wild Bunch. In the early fifties there was a Gregory Peck film titled The Gunfighter which I thought was very interesting for its fatalistic world view and its close adherence to the Aristotelian unities in the telling of the story.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Tom: Only the standard persistence advice, which has become something of a tired cliché. Like most clichés, though, there’s an element of truth to it, and I offer as evidence my own checkered publishing history. To that sorry chronicle I would only add a cautionary note: Immediately disabuse yourself of the notion of the glamour of this sort of life. Understand that it’s rather like a bank clerk’s job, only your bank is open seven days a week.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Tom: Looking over what I’ve said so far, I recognize, to my immense chagrin, I’ve become the embodiment of that most tiresome of stereotypes, the pompous geriatric full of “in my day” wheeze. So enough said already.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Tom: They might be surprised to learn that since age fifteen I’ve been a fitness addict, lifting weights in a grungy basement long before it was fashionable, and still hoisting them today, albeit with poundages more suitable to a nursing home setting.
KRL: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Tom: When writing a book I’ve found it’s better not to think about what’s ahead. Just focus on the work. Once the book is finished, I leave the marketing and promotion to the publisher. They’re the experts, after all.
To enter to win a copy of Treasure Coast, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Treasure,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 13, 2014. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.