Friday, August 17, 2012

Undercover Review: RED RIGHT RETURN

by John H. Cunningham
316 pages
Review by Greg Daniel

Florida writers are inevitably compared to John D. MacDonald.  This is patently unfair to them as often the only reason to do is the fact that they are Florida writers.  But I have yet to read a Florida writer worth reading that wasn’t influenced by MacDonald.  John H. Cunningham is definitely worth reading; so it follows that he was influenced by MacDonald and it shows.

Cunningham’s first novel, Red Right Return, features Buck Reilly, a former Wall Street darling who ran a publicly traded treasure salvage company.  The market crashed hard and brought everything down around Buck.  His partner is in jail, his parents are dead, his brother has all but disowned him, old “friends” won’t take his calls, and he is flat broke.  So when the going gets tough, what is a guy like Buck to do?

He decides to lay low in Key West.  With a nod to Travis McGee, salvage consultant, Buck launches Last Resort Salvage and Charter.  With his Grumman Widgeon, Buck looks for sunken treasure and takes on the no questions asked (at least before the fact) kind of jobs one would expect from a treetop flyer living in the Conch Republic.

Red Right Return takes off with one of those “no questions asked” charters that has Buck dropping off a beautiful girl in the Gulf of Mexico to rendezvous with a boat he later discovers is on a mission trip bound for Cuba.  When the boat disappears, Buck’s life is turned upside down and he is again in the middle of the notoriety that he went to Key West to escape.

Someone doesn’t want the boat found.  And a lot of people want to take advantage of the situation.  Some are intent on making it a geopolitical incident, while others just want to find their loved ones.

Exploring Key West, the Gulf, Cuba, and the Bahamas via seaplane, kayak, and scuba would be a fun and adventurous book in itself.  But here we get that along with eerie Santeria rituals and warnings, an unpleasant visit to a Cuban jail, an FBI agent with a personal vendetta against Buck, thugs in Bush and Clinton masks, mysterious ciphers, and a host of colorful Key West characters.

In addition to MacDonald and McGee, homage is also paid to the patron saints of Key West, Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett.  Papa provides the clues for Buck’s treasure hunt and is echoed in the references to rum, boxing, and more throughout the book.  Buffett actually appears as a character in the book and was the previous owner of Buck’s plane.  Both Hemingway and Buffett are revered for their obvious influences and blamed for what Key West has become.

While Buck may be a bit too introspective early on for some pulp fans, he is also a man of action.  Not some super-powered, super-gadgeted man of action, but a guy who has to rely upon his wits, guts, and the occasional fist to rescue the damsel and live the adventure.  Once the book hits the halfway point, the action and suspense build relentlessly toward a thrilling climax.

Cunningham and Buck have carved out a little place of their own in the New Pulp universe.  Here the rum flows freely, “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season” and “Son of a Son of a Sailor” can be heard in the background, and your seaplane and sailboat are tethered to the dock.  Let’s call it Parrothead Pulp.  I am sure that you will enjoy your visit.

And according to the coconut telegraph, it is not just a one-time visit.  Buck’s second adventure, Green To Go, came out in June and Cunningham is busy writing the third Buck Reilly novel.

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