The Second Letter marks the entry of Robert Lane into the thriller market with his glib, wisecracking hero, ex-Special Forces operative, Jacob, (call me Jake) Travis. Recruited for off-the-books, contract work for the government, Travis operates with something of a poor man’s version of the Mission Impossible crew. The problems are not quite as earth shaking, the scheming not quite as convoluted, but if a Jake Travis series materializes, as it gives every promise of doing—a second book is promised for this fall—earth shaking and convolution are no doubt in the cards.
Set on the West Coast of Florida with plenty of heat, boats and sand, The Second Letter has Travis on the trail of a sealed letter hidden just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco which is being used as bait to get the I.R.S. off the back of a strip club owning, crime boss “wannabe.” Details of the letter’s contents are not revealed until the very end of the novel, but in event, they prove essentially irrelevant to the plot of the novel. Indeed, as Travis and a gaggle of helpers he has around for grunt work, pursue the letter, the letter itself begins, at least for this reader, to take second place to other concerns—blackmail and child sex slavery most notably. Although it starts slowly with an introduction detailing the origin of the letter, and the major characters, the story fairly rapidly picks up pace, and pulls you along page by page more urgently the deeper you get into it.
Travis himself is in many respects a modification of the typical, mocking noir hero, both he and his creator come across as quite a bit more literate and intelligent than the run of the mill model. There are quips and remarks, both clever and cringe worthy aplenty, but most considerably better than the hoary “call me a doctor” line trotted out late in the novel. The quick witted Lane manages to find material for the repartee of the quick witted Travis as well as his quick witted lady friend, the beautiful Kathleen in Shakespeare, Churchill, Twain, Trotsky and Wagner, as well as John Lennon and Yogi Bear for the less literate among us. Whether one cringes or smiles at this sort of banter, be prepared it comes by the bale.
In his villain, the Cuban strip club operator, Raydel Escobar, Lane creates a more rounded character than the normal thriller, evil gangster. Sections narrated from Escobar’s point of view reveal something more of his character than we get when we see him through Travis’s eyes. Not that he ever becomes a sympathetic character, but he does show some of his other sides.
The cast of characters is large, some are types like the nerdy P.C. and his partner, the ‘malaproping’ Boyd, Olivia the disapproving housekeeper and especially the larger supporting roster of crooks and thugs, but since these are lesser figures, the stereotyping is easier to take.
In sum, if you’re up for a readable thriller with a groaner or two, The Second Letter is worth your time.
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