COOLER HEADS. By William Harlan Richter. Small Fry Books, Santa Monica, Calif. 2010. 333 pages. $14.95, softcover.
The outlook isn’t brilliant for Ned Donlin, fugitive from justice, and hapless caretaker of Music Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary on Martha’s Vineyard. For one thing, he’s recovering from a bender to celebrate his third year anniversary on Island, the maximum time he’s ever allowed himself to hide out in a single location. The binge has delivered him into the morning with a hellacious headache: “A long rusty corkscrew, inserted up into his sinuses, grinding its way through the core of his brain, its dull point turning and scraping tortuously against the back wall of his skull.”
Cooler Heads is the debut novel of longtime Vineyard visitor and resident William Harlan Richter. It’s a caper within capers, with a host of colorful characters in the tradition of comic mystery writers from Graham Greene in Travels with My Aunt, to Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, to this reviewer’s recent favorite, Cape Cod writer Spencer Quinn’s Dog On It. Mr. Richter’s chief influences are Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake and Robert Parker, and his primo taste in authors osmoses into his prose like dye through tied cotton.
Ned and the covey of old ladies who sit on the Music Lagoon board have latched onto a scam for tapping new donors. The purpose is to keep the preserve’s budget out of the red and, if not into the black, at least in the pink. The trick is convincing wealthy birders that they alone in the world have identified a specimen of the extinct vanellus caucasus, aka, caucasian lapwing, as alive and well on Martha’s Vineyard.
How do Ned and the trustees pull it off? Well, after collecting the latest contribution of 10K from a departing patsy, one of the Music Lagoon ladies emerges, huffing and puffing, from a ravine. “On her shoulder sat a common pet cockatiel — Howard — adulterated with white spray paint (water-based, fortunately for the bird) and prosthetic beak and legs.” The cagey ladies have also recorded the defunct lapwing’s call, “Too-da hooweee! Too-da hooweee! Hoowey hoowey hoowey!”
The plot of a perfect caper is a Rube Goldberg construction when one mishap gives way to the next, the collapse sucking more mishaps and misdeeds into the vortex to yield sheer nuttiness and, equally important, suspense. Mr. Richter’s cast of suspects includes Ned’s old girlfriend, femme fatale and vicious criminal Veronica Lodge; her two ADD-addled hirelings, the Friendship brothers; the visiting bird-loving Vice President of the U.S., a cross between Al Gore and Mr. Rogers; and one of the nastiest developers to come down the pike in a long time, Arnie Speck — when he’s not plotting his next environmental faux pas of subdividing Noman’s Island, he plans to trade in his son, the soft, angelic Ripley, for a hard-core street kid from the nearest orphanage.
On the good guys’ side of the ledger, Ned’s cronies include Doc, a retired veterinarian willing to serve as an under-the-table people doctor, and Deputy Lem, cashiered to a desk job after his last go-round with Ned. And then there’s retired General Hoak, who embeds in his brain a squad of crack commandos. These phantom soldiers fire up the commander’s inner radar, enabling the general to order recon and, with more dire consequences, attack.
Ned and his buds meet up nightly at a bar called The Cooler. The shabby local lies so deep in the woods, down one rutted road and sunken ravine after the next, that only the most persistent — and the coolest — Islanders can find the secret clubhouse. It’s the P.A. Club tucked away in the old Chicama Vineyards acreage.
Mr. Richter’s Island ties goes back to his great-grandmother, Mable Briggs, who lived on the Vineyard for most of her 102 years, and to whom the book is dedicated. She resided in a second floor walkup on Main street in Vineyard Haven, from which vantage she loved to sit and watch the ferries glide in and out of port. The author’s family on his mother’s side has enjoyed many generations of lodging in Lambert’s Cove, where Mr. Richter recently settled into a yearlong retreat to indulge one of those pesky fiction-writing urges.
The nascent novelist has been a working screenwriter for 20 years and lives in Santa Monica, Calif. He wrote and produced the Emmy-nominated documentary, We Stand Alone Together, part of the Band of Brothers miniseries for HBO. He visits the Vineyard at regular intervals, preferring the off-season, as does his protagonist, Ned Donlin.
There is something for everyone in Cooler Heads —– for birders, preservationists, even Espresso Love addicts who, like the ladies of Music Lagoon, adore the lemon-drizzled cinnamon rolls. Golf aficionados — and their name is legion — will chortle over this description of a fictional course:
“The Sweetwater Golf Club’s 18th hole was a bastard, a cruel trick played by the golf course designer. He had laid out 17 flaccid, ego-boosting holes for the martini-soaked summer crowd, then dropped one angry dose of championship-level reality in the final stretch, where even the slightest shortcoming in a golfer’s game would be revealed within full humiliating view of the clubhouse patio. Five hundred yards, double dog-leg, fairway interrupted by three separate water hazards and a cluster of unrealistically deep sand traps, where even scratch golfers were known to blow three or four angry strokes as the smart-assed caddies stood by, mocking them.”
Artist Marischa Slusarski painted the loopy looking lapwing on the cover. Chris Meyer provided the graphic design. Cooler Heads is available at Island bookstores.