I was in high school when the movie Payback came out. I watched it and immediately felt a connection with the main character, Porter, played by Mel Gibson. Sure, he was a bad guy, but the point of the movie was not that he was bad; it was that he wanted what was fair. It didn’t matter to me that the money was stolen, the point was that he deserved to get his cut. In any case, no other movie or novel had made me feel the same way…until Scott Adlerberg’s Jack Waters came around.
Jack Waters takes place in 1904. The title is the name of its main character, Jack Waters, a man who has been expelled from his native New Orleans after for murdering a man he caught cheating at cards. Waters hops on a boat and makes his way to the Caribbean. While there, he resumes his gambling, and while everything goes smoothly for a while, playing cards eventually leads to him becoming involved in a revolution against a brutal dictator with a taste for young girls who refuses to pay his debts. Despite befriending the leader of the revolution, some of the men he fights along with doubt his reasons for joining them, and that throws Waters into a complicated game of action, violence, and hidden agendas where danger comes from every conceivable angle. What follows is an action-packed narrative about doing the right thing when you have a Machiavellian mindset and a peculiar code of ethics.
Adlerberg is one of the most talented and versatile contemporary authors working on that line where crime fiction dips its tentacles into a plethora of other genres. In his previous book, Graveyard Love, Adlerberg crafted a tense, cold, creepy tale of obsession that earned him many comparisons to masters like Poe and even Hitchcock. In this one, he leaves the cold behind and drops readers in the middle of the Caribbean heat, in a world of cutthroat politics, crippling heat, heavy rains, and unhappy citizens engaged in armed revolt. While the differences are immeasurable, it quickly becomes clear that the author is equally comfortable, and equally in control, regardless of setting, theme, and era:
Amoros stood and threw a coin on the table. He let go of another as they left, flipping it at the guitar- strumming man. Outside cicadas were chirping and the smell of cigar smoke, a dense miasma, gave way to the redolent odor of the bush. With the threat of rain building, the air was dank and the sky black as pitch, and the huts in the village lay swathed in a darkness broken only by the candlelight showing in the cracks underneath front doors. Waters could hear the noise from the bar and giggling coming from the whorehouse, but everywhere else in the village it was quiet, wives and men sleeping.
As the above passage shows, Adlerberg understands two things well: the importance of economy of language when it comes to crime fiction and how crucial it is to place readers’ senses in the setting of the story. He does both time and again. Furthermore, he does it all while keeping a pace that makes this 193-page novel read like an action-packed 90-page novella. Crackling dialogue, quick explosions of violence, and relatively short chapters all add to that pace and make Jack Waters the type of book that demands to be devoured quickly.
Another element of Adlerberg’s writing that is omnipresent here is the understated poetry that resides in his prose. It is at once a welcome deviation from the language found in formulaic thriller/crime novels and something that gives his work an undeniably cinematic quality:
A bank of mist over the cane field caught the silvery light from the moon. It made everything glow like phosphorus. The sugar cane stalks looked lime-green; the stone crown of the rum-making works, off to the left, might have been a castle built on a mountain obscured by clouds. But this was not a mountain with a castle, it was the island, and Waters on his sturdy black and white horse scanned the rum plantation below and knew the time to prove himself was here.
Ultimately, Jack Waters succeeds because its heart is in the right place. Waters is a very likeable character who, like all of us, is flawed and ends up having to deal with the repercussions of his own shortcomings. However, before he’s forced to do so, he takes readers on a superb adventure in which justice is the main goal. Oh, and the last line of the novel is worth the price of admission all by itself.
by Scott Adlerberg
Broken River Books; 193 p.