James Wilson Hall Essay - Critical Essays


James Wilson Hall’s early and acknowledged crime-writing influences—Ernest Hemingway, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Carl Hiassen, and Elmore Leonard—are evident, particularly in his early work. From Hemingway, he borrowed a terse, lean, tough style. John D. MacDonald lent dark humor, a focus on South Florida, and a love for the environment. Ross Macdonald brought a lyrical quality and a concentration on the theme that the past can exert a profound effect on the present. Hiassen and Leonard added their talents in characterization, realistic dialogue, and unexpected plot turns.

It is to Hall’s credit that he has taken the best aspects of these writers and made them uniquely his own. His larger-than-life characters stick in the memory primarily because they have been given a psychological dimension that adds considerable depth—a feature often lacking in the casts of plot-driven thrillers. Suspense heightens because major protagonists and antagonists, ticking time bombs of hidden psychoses, are unpredictable, out of step or out of touch with the rest of the world; the reader never knows when their pasts will catch up with them and cause an explosion. Good or bad, his characters have some quality—guilt, lapsed memories, uncertainties, irrational fears, compassion for animals, a love of words—that makes them sympathetic, if flawed, and human.

A sense of place is key to Hall’s work. South Florida—a modern ethnic melting pot with a fragile ecology subject to the depredations of greed, corruption, and attendant violence—is portrayed so sharply that it becomes a character in itself. These stories, which delve into pollution that imperils wildlife and human life alike, the adverse effect of millions of visitors on the environment, the treatment of ailing patients, or the negative results of technology, would not be the same if played out elsewhere.

Stylistically, Hall has, after echoing the techniques of other writers, found his own voice, a blend of the blunt and the beautiful. He usually writes in third person, past tense. Sentences are typically short, punchy, and full of slang and street language—except when they deal with nature, at which time they lengthen into picturesque, evocative description. Literary devices, such as similes and metaphors, are used sparingly but effectively. A patina of humor, sometimes dark and ironic, sometimes wistful and nostalgic, coats much of Hall’s writing, giving an extra layer of meaning to his work.

Bones of Coral

The nonseries thriller Bones of Coral concerns Shaw Chandler, a longtime Miami paramedic who, called out from the firehouse one night, finds his father—a fugitive confessed murderer, whom he has not seen for twenty years—dead of a gunshot wound, a supposed suicide. Suspicious of the nature of his father’s demise, Shaw takes a sabbatical from work to visit his mother Millie, an alcoholic dying of cancer in the Florida Keys. He reunites with Trula Montoya, his childhood sweetheart and a former soap opera star who suffers from a mild form of multiple sclerosis; she is one victim among many stricken with the disease, which several scientists have attributed to the illegal disposal of toxic substances in South Florida.

Based on actual research into a genuine environmental problem, Bones of Coral presents a fascinating cast of memorable, subtly shaded...

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