BOOK REVIEW / Big guns on a treasure hunt for a galleon full of gold: 'Hard Aground' - James Hall: Heinemann, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
JAMES HALL is a poet and professor of English at Florida International University. Somewhere between matriculation and the writing of Hard Aground he must have done a subsidiary course in hand-held arms, because his latest thriller, among other things, is a manual on weapons. There are big guns, bigger guns, the odd hacksaw, and was that some kind of bazooka blowing through one character's midriff a cavity you could drive another character's Corvette through? Oxford isn't the only college town with a bloody body count, except that Hall, unlike Morse's creator, Colin Dexter, has rather more hard data - the life of Miami - on which to base his tale.

Not that he has ignored the beckonings of fantasy. At the centre of his plot, in a Spanish galleon called the Carmelita that ran 'hard aground' 350 years ago, is a stash of plundered Inca treasure. Daniel, a municipal archaeologist, knows where the bullion is and he wants to share it with his little brother, Hap. If he knew he was about to be murdered, he would have mentioned it earlier, but even his murderers didn't know he would die. Daniel is tooling around at the site of a dig when someone points the smallest pistol in the book at him, frogmarches him off to a hotel room and administers a truth drug. A few ccs too many in his rump, and he dies an ecstatic death.

Hall describes it with a flourish that for obvious reasons this reviewer is not in a position to verify: 'a sound had begun inside him, as if coming from his groin, rising up through him, resonating like the quiet rumble before an earthquake. . .' It doesn't sound a bad way to go - not compared with the various other ways detailed later in the book, anyway.

Treasure Island it ain't. Here's who we've got on the trail of gold. First there's Senator Garnetta Rawlings, a rich politician respected in business and welfare circles. She employs Ray Alvarez, her Cuban toy boy and chauffeur, to truffle for the treasure. He brings in Glenn Hollings, a Vietnam vet, who, since coming home, has had no luck with women or work. That is, until he teams up with another of Alvarez's hired guns, an ugly hulk called Martina.

The good guys are even more chalk and cheese. Hap, Daniel's surviving brother, minds his own business, designs surfboards when he isn't cruising babes half his age, and has a history of psychiatric problems and public disturbance. Marguerite, Daniel's girlfriend, is a crusading journalist and serious-minded conservationist who wants to expose her mother, the senator. They definitely aren't made for each other, but one of the most accomplished moments in a book full of them sees their reciprocal loathing mutate from violence into sexual violence into sex. Hard Aground is several notches up on your average pacy thriller, but even so, this is quite an achievement. You'll struggle to find a better delineation of the no man's land between love and hate, especially one in which both protagonists reek of skunk oil extract.

Amid all the weird encounters and the gun-toting is a thoughtful strand dealing with history, heritage and the battles that people fight over them. Marguerite and Hap are, as it were, hung up on their family trees: they are both descendants of Key Biscayne pioneers who made the region habitable; he is oppressed by his ancestor, she is obsessed by hers.

The archaeology motif looms large here. At the turn of the century Commodore Tyler and Ramona Rawlings engaged in a power struggle that mirrors the dilemma facing modern Miami: to build or preserve, to go with the flow of civic corruption, or resist it. As with everything else in the book, Hall doesn't overdo the historical echoes in the way that a more pretentious scribbler of potboilers might. He lets the reader do some of the thinking, and in return you get a plot that twists and turns like a mosquito without a map; dialogue that shines like missing Inca treasures; and a sense of place that brings Miami, with its highrises and low life, direct to your armchair. Above all, he has a zappy, undonnish way of telling you about things professors of English don't traditionally know a great deal about. Or maybe they like their academics street-wise in Florida. God knows what his poetry is like.

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