Written by Jeff Lindsay — Dexter, the Miami-based forensics technician and vigilante remains one of crime fiction’s greatest characters. A serial killer with just enough self-awareness to know he wouldn’t be able continue to indulge his darkest desires without getting caught if he didn’t find victims that the police wouldn’t look too hard at, is a delicious conceit. The eight books, beginning with Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) and ending with Dexter is Dead (2015), inspired a successful TV spin-off, though it didn’t take long for the books and TV series to split in different directions.
Rather than begin a totally new series, Lindsay has returned to a character from an earlier thriller. Tropical Depression, the first Billy Knight thriller, was published in 1994, and has been republished this summer in advance of Red Tide. In Tropical Depression, Billy Knight was an ex-cop who left the force in disgrace, and exchanged the mean streets of Los Angeles for the more gentle existence as a fishing guide in Key West, Florida. The murder of his old partner drags him back to LA to investigate, and and the corruption and racism that he encounters working the case leave him further disillusioned.
And so as Red Tide begins Billy is back in Key West licking his wounds and spending his downtime in a rough fisherman’s bar, The Moonlight Room. A drunken bar brawl ends with him spending a night in jail and the few friends he has decide that an intervention is needed. Billy is persuaded the best thing for him would be to go sailing, and he agrees to travel to Miami with his friend Nicky to charter a boat back to the Keys. Sure enough, after a few days out on the ocean Billy is starting to feel better about life. Their tranquillity is shattered when the men come across a corpse floating in the ocean.
The Coast Guard bring them in, but the police have little interest in the body. While it is highly likely that a crime has been committed, it’s possible that this was just an accident, there is no identification of the victim, the case is just about unsolvable, and any crime that might have taken place was in international waters where the cops have no jurisdiction. Billy knows how the system works so he isn’t surprised, but Nicky is outraged.
Sensing an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, Nicky sets out to persuade Billy to investigate. There might be more cases like this that the police are ignoring, and throwing himself in to doing something useful, something he’s good at, might be just what Billy needs. Resisting at first, Billy is eventually persuaded to help when a beautiful Ukrainian refugee called Anna Kovacic accuses him of choosing to look away the same way the world did when Ukraine was up in flames.people
The first break in the case comes with a newspaper report of thee Haitian nationals found dead in the Gulf off the lower Keys. Billy hits up a police contact called the Deacon who is not afraid to put the rule book to one side and Deacon in turn puts him in touch with a Haitian community leader. Honore tells Billy of a local legend they call the Black Freighter, a ship that smuggles immigrants in from Haiti, but whose cargo never seem to make it to Miami. The Black Freighter is said to be captained by a bocor, which is a practitioner of dark voodoo. The desperate immigrants in Haiti never know when they pay for passage whether or not they are going to get the Black Freighter. If Billy wants to stop any more murders he will have to confront the staff of the Black Freighter, probably on the high seas. But first he will have to find them.
Red Tide is not without its faults. The depiction of Nicky, an Australian new-age shop owner, never really rises above caricature, likewise the beautiful Anna. The clues to the mystery of the Black Freighter fall into Billy’s lap somewhat, and Deacon seems less a character than a convenient method of pushing the plot forward.
However, there is plenty of humour, and Lindsay is particularly good with dialogue. But it is Billy Knight who holds the whole thing together. He’s a likeable protagonist, and one you’ll definitely root for. I’m sure there is a nod to the immortal Travis McGee given the location and Billy’s career.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars