Monday, 9 February 2009

Review: The Bait Shack by Harry Hughes

In Harry Hughes first murder mystery novel, The Bait Shack, I found myself emerged into Dan and Lacy’s life. Mr Hughes manages to spin an intricate weave with intriguing characters, suspense, and sprinkles of humor to add dimension.

In The Bait Shack, Dan Cooles decides to change his life by quitting his job, relocating, and marrying Lacy Chamblet. What he does not realize is with this decision, he will find himself and Lacy struggling to keep their unstable marriage together while surrounded by unsavory characters and macabre events.

Lacy is a secretary for a shrewd real estate owner, Henry Meredith. He will stop at nothing to obtain what he wants. Henry is diabolical and rude beyond words. He also employs Twist, a brain damaged boy who does odd and end jobs and is a whiz with acronyms. Both Lacy and Twist find themselves on the receiving in of Henry’s verbal abusiveness. Previous workers of Mr.Meredith’s have met an untimely end and Lacy feels she may be the next.

Lieutenant Revels, a conservation officer, seeks revenge on Henry for killing off a protected species of birds. Connie Jablonski is a maniacal ex-con who brings intimidation and pain to those around him. Johnny Avalino is a mobster who will stop at nothing to increase the value of his beachfront property. Nancy Littlecrow is an unscrupulous lawyer who doesn‘t mind working the “gray area“, especially if it benefits her. Seymour Bram is a retired, depressed Air Force Major looking for the easiest way to become rich. Duncan Slochbauer, an amateur videographer stumbles upon the murdered remains of Karen Kern, a previous employer of Henry’s.

All the characters come to life in the book, bringing with them a variety of personalities. Somehow Mr Hughes manages to tie them all together with a superb story that kept me guessing to the end. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading more novels from this author.

Renda Romanus

A stunning first novel. An up-to-date take on the classic American murder mystery. Harry Hughes tells his suspenseful story in quick-paced and colorful prose and creates dozens of sharply drawn characters, including Dale Cooles, an unforgettable anti-hero in the Philip Marlowe tradition.

Michael Lydon. Author. Co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine

The Bait Shack is an intriguingly entertaining and engaging murder mystery that demonstrates a vivid imaginative gift on the part of author, Harry Hughes. In his debut novel, Hughes expertly creates a small but complex cast of characters whose quirky persona and relationship dynamics lend much to the novel's appeal.

Dale Cooles, a mathematician/number cruncher walks way from his university position to begin a new life with his bride, Lacy Chamblet. He is content to stay home, cook and clean while Lacy goes to work for the property management firm of Meredith Holdings and its less than reputable owner, Henry Meredith.

Meredith is known for his unsavory business practices, his sleazy relationships, and his employ of undesirable characters to do his bidding. But Meredith's life gets complicated when a key business deal doesn't pan out and he hires an unsavory goon to collect unpaid rent on the properties. All this aside, living in a cottage situated behind one of Meredith's old empty homes has its advantages for Dale and Lacy. That is, until they slip into the main house and find evidence that points to unsolved murders. Angers flair and egos collide but the pace never lets up until the very end.

Hughes has crafted a solid read around a twisted tail that explores the dark side of the human soul and peppered it with his own brand of deliciously dry humor. The Bait Shack is a fast read that will easily hold the attention of any murder mystery buff. I definitely look forward to more from Harry Hughes.

Dale Cooles is a mathematician ready to tie up some messy ends. He's quit his fancy university job, said goodbye to his last fling, and applied himself to his new life as unemployed, kept husband of Lacy Chamblet. Lacy is secretary to robber baron Henry Meredith, who makes his living cheating his tenants, avoiding tax, and hiring low cost street kids too unemployable to blow the whistle on him. But this time, he's teamed up with mobster Johnny Avalino, and his plans take a nasty turn. Are Dale and Lacy smarter than Meredith thinks they are? Is thwarted conservation officer Calvin Revels able to pay Meredith back for destroying an endangered species of bird, along with Revels' career? And just who is the vicious Connie Jablonski, and what is his relationship to Meredith's other employee Twist Van Houghten - a boy with a face twisted from Bell's Palsy, a head twisted from a run in with a concrete slab, and an odd ability to turn people's names into fully expressed acronyms?

The Bait Shack opens like a Stephen King thriller, and keeps up the pace, but it soon becomes obvious that this is a very funny read: humour overpacing the horror. Dale and Lacy are super quick on the comebacks - the witty one liners keep coming, alongside an omniscient narrative voice with a vocabulary to rival Umberto Eco's. The two protagonists are almost too clever, but their toe tripping insecurity, bumbling, and honesty keeps everything real, and provide a slapstick counter to the rapid pace of their minds. They're only klutzes after all: not evil or manipulative like everyone else. It's a rollicking ride to the surprise denouement, and the murder mystery keeping everything rolling along.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss this book as `feel good', light-hearted beach reading just because it's fun and fast. Both Dale and Lacy are serious, believable characters Between the whine and the wine, Dale often expresses profound insights on the nature of modern society. At other times he'll explore the nature of man's existence against an aging body and midlife crisis. The exploration of themes like how we deal with midlife, love, and hate in the 21st Century - in the wake of the sixties - makes this a book that resonates long after the fun stops. Hughes' descriptive powers are exceptional, from the Dickensian characters carrying the full range of quirks - both charming and obnoxious, to the rich natural world of its Long Island setting. In The Bait Shack, Harry Hughes takes noir to a new level. Wry, classy, compelling and utterly hysterical. Think Iain Pears crossed with Martin Amis. Dale and Lacy make an endearing team of anti-heroes in a world showing its true colors. Read it for pleasure and and then re-read it to find surprising richness in the depths of its insights.

If you're looking for lyrical prose to pull you through a captivating story, lending the characters a spark of vitality with real life dialogue unrivalled in modern day literature, The Bait Shack is for you.
Johnny Nys

An amazing read, I didn't want to put down. The graphic imagery held you right there in the moment with the victim and the killer.

Jan Coad

Philosophical dilemmas, dead bodies, greed, sex-you can't stop reading! Tough times demand tough heroes-Harry Hughes' The Bait Shack satisfies. Explosive, racy, and, charming.

Mary Zuzan

A convoluted, twisting read filled with unusual characters, strange locations, murder, mayhem and an ending of such unexpectedness as to be totally unprepared for.

Ruth Woolsey

Dale Cooles has quit his job and recently married. He moves into a cottage owned by his bride's employer who has several land holdings. That this is a strange place is understated as every character has quirks and foibles that take them out of what we call normal.

Dale is content to hang around the house even though he is very educated. He seems to be very satisfied with very little. Dale's wife, Lacy, works for a man who insults her too often and one wonders why she stays. The pay doesn't seem to be very good. And she shares the office at times with Twist, a man who seems to live up to his name. Henry Meredith seems to suffer from terminal greed among other things.

This curious cast would make a great adult film for Halloween. The story starts on a rather sunless note and slowly sinks into the shadowy darkness of the mind where a killer lurks. Yet, the reader will only slowly be aware of the danger some characters may be in. Fans of Psycho will be right at home with this tale with its suspense and tension and the mysterious mansion the owner does not want visited

There are several subplots at play, cleverly tied into the main story as the reader begins to guess at what will happen, what motivates these people and why they do some of the things they do. Talented author Harry Hughes will slowly twist all the strands into one while holding out attention from page one to the end.

I'm pleased to recommend this book as a fun read for anyone who likes houses that creak in the night, shadows that pass windows and seem to peer in, and likes strange characters whose crudities and rawness make them very lifelike.

Enjoy. I did.

Dale Cooles does what many men would like to do, but haven't worked up the courage to do: he quits his job, breaks the romance off with Marilyn, and heads for Long Island in the truck with all his worldly possessions to marry Lacy Chamblet. At the same time Dale is caught in tying up loose ends prior to moving, Lacy is spending the early morning hours having one mishap after another while trying to get dressed for work.

Humor smoothes the way from a Prologue filled with murder to a scenario of a sane man [supposed to be sane anyway] trying to come up with the ideal insanity plea to get him out of trouble.

Where other mystery/suspense novels start with a lot of action that keeps building until the climax, Mr Hughes builds suspense and mystery slowly throughout a delightful tale of romance between an out-of-work young man and a secretary to finding several cadavers buried beneath the porch of an old house that Meredith has been trying to purchase. I kept asking myself just where is the crime, the mystery in this tale, and who was the lady being killed in the Prologue, but w hen I reached the height of danger for Dale and Lacy I found the story totally satisfying in every way. The Bait Shack is added to my list of must-reads.
Lucille P Robinson

Unemployed whiz kid Dale Cooles struggles to save his marriage and his sanity when his previously charmed life's turned topsy turvy by a cadre of killers and clowns.

Dale and wife Lacy - daughter of an eccentric but filthy rich Tennessee lumber magnate - unwittingly adopt into their domestic wrangle Twist, the brain-damaged orphan, and Lieutenant Revels, the beat-weary yet determined conservation officer seeking revenge for Lacy's unscrupulous boss's part in the mysterious extinction of rare birds on a prime piece of real estate.

And then there are the other extinctions ... the human ones.

In the parade of offbeat characters in Hughes' ingenious and '90s-set street smart black comedy of crime, we meet cutthroat businessman Henry Meredith, out for what he can get, psycho hitman Connie Jablonski, out for what he can hurt, mobster Johnny Avalino, greedy to enhance the value of his beach-front property by any means, Nancy Littlecrow, the shameless and cagey Native American attorney who gives new meaning to the term 'Indian Affairs', Seymour L. Bram, the retired and retiring Air Force Major suffering from chronic depression and delusions of easy money, Duncan Slochbauer, the slovenly and obsessed amateur producer of grisly news videos ...

And we don't quite meet poor Karen Kern and the faceless others who might have crossed the path of a crazed and kinky serial killer nobody seems to have noticed lurking somewhere in Hughes' uniquely colourful dramatis personae.


Author Harry Hughes is a Viet Nam and Woodstock vet, an award winning popular song writer and a professor of psychology. Seven years of his life in New York is the subject of the National Book Critics Circle Award nominated book, Homefires; An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America, by Donald Katz (Harper Collins Press, 1992). Harry's short story, A River Too Distant, was published, along with works by Edward Albee and Joseph Heller, in Hampton Shorts, Vol. 3, 1998. He currently lives in Utah. The Bait Shack is his first novel.

Harry's blog

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