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gray ghost

4 june 2007

I have been a fan of William G. Tapply since his series hero Brady Coyne ventured into baseball territory in Follow the Sharks (1985). The Brady Coyne novels only skirt the fringes of sport literature, however. Tapply's newest series venture is a full immersion into the nexus of sport and murder. New hero Stoney Calhoun is a professional fly-fishing guide who has a habit of discovering dead bodies in the course of his work.

Calhoun first appeared in Tapply's Bitch Creek (2004). He's a 30-something amnesiac who wakes one day in a VA hospital. His nurses tell him he's been struck by lightning. His conscious memory has been erased, but he has various cryptic nightmares and certain muscle memories – like being able to tie flies, or shoot hoops, or kill a man with his bare hands. Some unknown powers give Stoney a huge bankroll and an ample income. Stoney finds himself 40 acres on a secluded trout stream in Maine, builds himself a house, finds work at a fishing-tackle shop, beds its incredibly nubile owner with the full permission of her disabled husband, and gets himself a devoted Brittany Spaniel named Ralph. In other words, if it weren't for his tendency to stumble across murder victims, Stoney would be living the midlife-male American Dream.

In Gray Ghost, the second and newest of the Stoney Calhoun novels, our hero's relationship with his partner Kate Balaban is having some ups and downs, and he quickly finds two corpses. One is roasted to an English-Patient turn on an unfrequented island. The other is crammed with .22-caliber bullets on Stoney's own front porch.

An aside here to those who may complain of spoilers: I have been told off in the past by readers who come across a review I've done of a sequel and complain that such a review gives away the ending of a previous story. And they have a certain logic to their complaints. By reviewing Gray Ghost I am indeed revealing that Stoney, Kate, Sheriff Dickman, and indeed Ralph himself, who is by far the most appealing character in these books, survive Bitch Creek in full – or in Stoney's case, full as it gets – possession of their faculties. I'm sorry to reveal so much, but you know, the fact that a mystery novel has a sequel is usually a good indicator that some of the innocent characters will be around to enjoy it, and that not that much will change in their lives. I suppose the ideal situation would be if we could suppress people's knowledge of the existence of sequels till they'd read the besequelled entries in a given series. But failing that, if you're reading Bitch Creek at the moment, you will just have to live with the problem that there's a further Stoney Calhoun mystery to enjoy.

These are true mysteries, in that the corpses that Stoney collects have well-concealed killers. Stoney and his sidekick Sheriff Dickman (I suppose technically Stoney, as unofficial deputy, is the sidekick, but this is a series where the assistant is the prime detective) are rural, seat-of-their-pants sleuths who, in the manner of sleuths since Auguste Dupin, see more than better-equipped professionals can. Though Stoney, perhaps, is only accidentally an amateur. He has a flair for investigation and a photographic memory that suggest intensive training in law enforcement – a training that, in the manner of any number of spy thrillers, the government would prefer that he forget.

Anyway, there are two quick murders in Gray Ghost, and the threat of more to come. The eventual mystery plot is somewhat pat. It involves revenge taken on a pedophile, and I could wish that Tapply had spent less time having his characters pointedly justify the murder of pedophiles. OK, we disapprove. Now could you find the killer before he offs anyone else on the sex-offender registry?

But conventional as the mystery gets, the interaction of the characters is the main joy here. I prefer Ralph to any of the humans, but Dickman is an appealing character, and so are the various working-class Mainers who populate Stoney's world. Tapply is a distinguished writer of fishing non-fiction, and one senses that the people of Stoney's milieu are drawn from life. I wish Stoney Calhoun a long career of fishing and crimefighting.

Tapply, William G. Gray Ghost. New York: St. Martin's, 2007.