Detective mysteries and spy thrillers come in all styles, be it the wonderfully purple prose of Raymond Chandler or the tauter novels of John le Carré. In The South Coast, local author John Matthews veers sharply into the terse, simple-sentence style of police action shoot-’em-ups. The genre requires bad guys, guns, action, and plenty of violence, all of which abound here, delivered with a tough-guy twang that makes for a quick, enjoyable read.
The hero, retired FBI agent Eddie Holland, now a private eye in the rather artsy precincts of Austin, Texas, dashes through this story of “treason, murder, a communist nation and a possibly corrupt U.S. senator,” as his superior officer puts it, rendered in the classic tones of the hard-boiled detective in classic venues—dark bars with suspicious characters, fancy hotels in D.C., a senator’s office, and that same bigwig’s posh estate outside Austin.
“For 12 years Eddie had chased terrorists from his office in D.C….” the narrator tells us early on. Now he’s photographing adulterous husbands in Austin. So he’s eager to pursue a missing-persons case, passed on to him by his sister, who works at a local law firm. In no time, he’s up to his eyebrows in computer fraud, murder, and NSA-style skullduggery. Matthews delivers his prose with the extreme simplicity and directness of a boxer in the ring, and moves swiftly from what looks like a minor matter to massively complicated, multiple international crimes involving the Chinese and some of the more cold-blooded hit men ever to blast their way through a detective thriller’s pages. The blood flows copiously and much attention is lavished on weaponry—although until Page 37 no guns appear, leading the reader to wonder if perchance this will be a nonviolent detective thriller. It is not.
The love interest is understated, as is Eddie’s relationship with his aged father in a nursing home. His visit to his ailing parent, toward the book’s end, is one of the story’s nicer touches and adds more depth to the hero than his numerous encounters with bad guys, or good guys on the run, do. “His father’s head slowly turned toward him and Eddie thought he saw his mouth move into a faint smile, while they looked into each other’s eyes for a few moments. The old man then turned his gaze back to the window and he was gone, trapped inside his own mind again.”
This break from murder and mayhem, this quick sketch of what it means to have a very elderly, declining parent, adds a human dimension to Eddie Holland that all of his compulsive jogging and relentless struggle with criminals never seems to match. In his good-guy/bad-guy worldview, it is nice to come upon this feeling for the mortality that is everyone’s lot, as opposed to the brisk executions that snap through the pages of this and most thriller fiction with the unstoppable style of a semi-automatic weapon.