It’s been more than a decade since you’ve published your last novel. What was it like to get back in the game with TREASURE COAST?
I have to say it’s been exhilarating, maybe because it was so unexpected. A year ago at about this time I went to my mailbox and discovered a package containing an autographed copy of THE HEIST by Janet Evanovich and her co-author, Lee Goldberg. I’d never met Ms. Evanovich but Lee I remembered from a writers conference years ago when he was just getting his start in crime fiction. We’d not stayed in touch, so I was naturally rather puzzled by the gift. Tucked inside the book I found a letter from Lee reintroducing himself and explaining a new venture he and his partner were embarked upon. That venture was Brash Books, a publishing company specializing in the revival of out-of-print crime novels, and since I had six such books, long since out of print, he invited me to participate. With nothing to lose, I readily agreed. Once the project was underway I mentioned to Lee that I had a manuscript languishing in a drawer, and he invited me to send it along. Happily for me, he liked it, and thusly was TREASURE COAST launched. It’s been available now in e-book and trade paperback formats since early September, and so far it’s been quite a ride.
It has been said that you’re a “master of the low-life novel.” What draws you to writing your darker characters?
Over the course of my life I’ve been thrust into environments almost exclusively male: the army (of my day), swinging a sledge on a railroad section crew, and, perhaps most useful of all for fiction writing, teaching inmates at Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. In all these settings I was exposed to the uninventable vernacular of clusters of men absent the civilizing influence of females, so I had a share of the dialogue for such characters handed to me like a gift. But with the villains (as, I hope, with all the other types of characters) what I wanted to do was avoid the stereotypes of villainy by investing them with qualities I can only call human. In TREASURE COAST, for example, Junior Biggs, the most despicable of villains, still plans to use part of the money he hopes to come by with their big score to buy a proper headstone for his mother’s grave. The introduction of such seeming incongruities can add what I like to believe is a certain comedic element to a narrative, as when the character Hector Pasadena, an equally unregenerate villain in TREASURE COAST, submits almost meekly to the instructions of the kidnap victim herself and joins without complaint in the group’s house cleaning and cooking chores. Juxtaposing such comic scenes with those of brutal violence helps me create an atmosphere of ambiguity I’m striving for in both narrative and characterization.
Of all the characters you’ve created, which is your favorite?
If I exclude the villains, many of whom I’ve certainly enjoyed creating, I’d have to say my favorite is the protagonist of the three “Waverly novels,” Timothy Waverly. He appeals to me because of the qualities that comprise his character: intelligence, focus, loyalty, shrewdness—a cynic with a streak of romanticism, a stoic fatalist with an abundance of courage. For me it’s easy to like, if not to identify with, such a character, maybe because he’s the man I wish I were.
Describe your writing space and how it inspires you.
If by “space” is meant the room where all the work gets done, there’s not a whole lot to describe and even less to say about it in the way of inspiration. It’s small, cramped, untidy, cluttered with all the paraphernalia of a writing enterprise. There’s a brace of windows along one wall that offer me glimpses into the human comedy of the outside world; inside, it looks like a mess, but it’s my mess and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Seven novels got penned on the battered desk that dominates the room, and I’ve got a sentimental attachment to the place.
How much of you or your experience is in your book? (Are any characters in your book based on people you know? Are any of the situations in your novel based on real events?)
The opening scene in TREASURE COAST, the central character Jim Merriman engaged in a deathwatch over a dying sister, was taken almost intact from a similar personal experience. Many years ago my older sister was diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of cancer. Miraculously, she survived almost 20 years till finally the malady caught up with her. I spent the last few days of her life in a bumbling effort to comfort her, and during that difficult time I must have absorbed some of the peculiarly repellent ambience of a hospital, for a great deal of it emerges in that first chapter. The difference between the fictional and actual events is that in real life there was no hapless nephew in a world of trouble or a tempting seductress down the hall. Those two and all the other characters in TREASURE COAST are purely products of my overheated imagination. Same with the events in the novel, the kidnapping plot and all the sub-plots, though I might add that all of the Palm Beach Gardens venues cited and described are faithful to the book’s time setting.
At this point in your writing career, what has been your most memorable moment as an author?
My most memorable moment, as I suspect is the case with many writers, was the day I learned my first novel, MICHIGAN ROLL, had been accepted for publication. I was 57 years old and had been trying for decades to break into print with a work of fiction. When it finally happened I’m not sure if I felt joy or vindication of all my efforts or simply an immense relief. All I know for certain is it was one of the highlights of my life.
If TREASURE COAST were to be turned into a movie, who would you have in the starring roles?
Daniel Day-Lewis is, in my opinion, the finest and most versatile actor of his generation. I’m not sure the Jim Merriman character would be challenging enough for him, but it would be an honor to have him portray it. Other male actors whose work I admire include Edward Norton and Viggo Mortensen, either of whom would do justice to the role. For the Billie Swett character I can think of no one better suited for that part than Sandra Bullock.
What was the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
My mentor at the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop was the novelist Vance Bourjaily. I once timidly submitted a short story to him, and to my intense gratification he seemed to like it very much. He encouraged me to submit it to some of the literary magazines of that era, which I did but with no success. When I expressed my frustration and dismay at not instantly breaking into print, his response was neither new nor particularly original: persistence, he maintained, was what finally carried the day. I believe my experience bears out the simple truth of this advice.
Who among modern writers in the genre of crime fiction and suspense do you most admire and why?
I’ve always liked the work of Ross Thomas and George Higgins, both sadly deceased. But it was Dutch Leonard, also abruptly departed, whose fast-paced novels, both crime and western, and memorable characters first captured my interest in the crime fiction genre. His plotting, in particular, defines that over-used term “page turner.” And while she is hardly limited to that genre herself, I have to mention here the work of Flannery O’Connor, who blended comedy and violence in an unforgettable mix, as in her peerless short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”
What is next for you?
Next year Brash Books is bringing out the last two of my out of print novels, FLAWLESS and BLIND SPOT. What will follow for me depends on the reception of all six books and, of course, TREASURE COAST. If there’s an audience out there for these kinds of stories and characters, I’d be tempted to pick up my pen one more time and see what flows.
About the book
Treasure Coast is one of the first releases from the new publishing company, Brash Books. Bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman created Brash to publish “the best crime novels in existence.”
A compulsive gambler goes to his sister's funeral on Florida's Treasure Coast and gets saddled with her loser-son, who is deep in debt to a vicious loan shark who sends a pair of sociopathic thugs to collect on the loan. But things go horribly awry...and soon the gambler finds himself in the center of an outrageous kidnapping plot involving a conman selling mail-order tombstones, a psychic who channels the dead and the erotically super-charged wife of a wealthy businessman. As if that wasn't bad enough, a killer hurricane is looming...
It's "Get Shorty" meets "No Country for Old Men" on a sunny Florida coast teeming with conmen and killers, the vapid and the vain, and where violent death is just a heartbeat away
LIKE MOST MEN CLOSING IN ON THE BENCHMARK
forty, Jim Merriman made far more promises—to others
mainly, a dwindling few yet to himself—than he knew, heart of
hearts, he ever intended to keep. It was a habit by now so deeply
entrenched, so much a part of him, that he wore it like a second
skin: Generate an earnest pledge today; effortlessly shuck
it off tomorrow. Mostly it was harmless, this habitual shortfall
between oath and execution, deed and good intention. A commonplace
human failing, to his thinking, small and forgivable.
A way of getting by in this sorry world.
But the vow exacted from him by a dying sister—that now
was giving him serious pause. Better make that acute discomfort.
(If he were going to be honest with himself, for a switch,
figuring—trying to figure—how to squirrel out of this one. Very
From across the continent, he’d been summoned to her bed
of pain, where eventually, floating up out of a narcotized fog, she
found the strength to peel back crusted eyelids, fix him with a
fluttery gaze, and in a voice fainter than a whisper, feebler than a
gasp, murmur, “Jim? That you?”
“None other,” he affirmed, putting some of that fraudulent
deathwatch heartiness into it.
“Said I would.”
“Been here long?”
“Not long,” he lied. In fact he’d been sitting there for the better
part of the afternoon, studying her sleep, marveling at the
relentless progress of this formidable malady, its curious manifestations.
Her face, in sleep, was sunken, sallow with a greenish
tint, the color of mold-infested cheese. The sockets of the eyes,
hollow and dark, looked to be rimmed with a dusting of soot.
A limp hand, its flesh withered and veined as a dry leaf, seemed
to sprout from a forearm grotesquely swollen to Popeye proportions
and out of which coiled an IV vine that leaked some colorless,
powerless anodyne into her blood. Now that hand moved in
an effort at a sweeping gesture. “No, here, I mean. Florida.”
“I got in this morning. Leon picked me up at the airport.”
“Where is he?”
“Your place. I told him to go back and crash. He looked
“It’s been hard for him,” she said.
“He’ll be OK.”
“You think so?”
“How about you?” he asked. “They treating you right here?”
“They do what they can.”
“Well, you need anything, you just let me know,” he said,
more confidently than he felt—as if he had a direct hotline to the
nerve center of the AMA and could make the quacks jump at his
barked command. Hotline to nowhere was what he had.
She nodded dismally, said nothing.
To put something into the oppressive silence, he launched
a wandering monologue, picking his topics cautiously, from the
security of the distant past mostly, skirting that phantom third
presence in the room, Lord Death, with his constrictive time horizons.
“Remember that time…” he’d begin a tale, lifted from their
shared heartland childhood, and through the malleable prism of
inventive memory, he’d mutate some perfectly ordinary incident
into an adventure antic. Outrageously the tales grew in the telling,
spinning the sunny Leave It to Beaver mythology of a tight,
joyous, loving family life. Pure fabrication of course. All of it. The
sorry truth was that, apart from the accident of birth, they’d never
had much in common, never been particularly close. Nevertheless
he wore on, mouth running tirelessly, until at last the grab bag
of hilarious anecdotes was depleted, the memory-lane tour
exhausted, and again a desolate silence settled over the room.
Thee somber interval lengthened. After a while she filled it.
Eyes tearing over, she said, not as a question, “There’s not
much time left, is there.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Nurse out there says you’re
holding your own.”
“Will you do something for me?” she asked, ignoring the blatant
“Whatever I can.”
“It’s Leon. He’s all alone now. So helpless. Like a child. Will
you watch out for him?”
“Sure, I’ll give the kid a hand” is what he told her. Another in
that legion of empty pledges. Slippery, purposely vague. The kind
of thing you search for to say. Should have been enough.
Except she couldn’t leave it alone. “Promise?”
“Hey, you can count on me,” he said lightly, conscious of the
sickly smile tacked on his face.
“Need to hear you say it, Jim.”
“Uh, what’s that?” he asked, stalling, averting his eyes from
that pleading, miseried gaze, unblinking now, insistent.
So, cornered, he heard his voice utter that one too, the “p”
word, figuring, Why not? What’s the damage? Whatever it took
to help her exit gracefully, or as graceful as anyone riddled by
outlaw cells, wildly multiplying even as they spoke, could ever
exit. It was only words. Nothing lost, no one really hurt.
His first mistake. First of many.
Ten minutes later he stood outside the entrance to the Palm
Beach Gardens Medical Center, idly puffing a cigarette. A nurse,
briskly efficient, professionally cheery, her smile as starched as
her uniform, had appeared only a moment after the vow-taking
ceremony (nice timing, those mercy angels) and shooed him out
of the room, chirping something about “Time for meds” and
whatever other ghoulish things they did to keep the croakee
wheezing and earn their pay. OK by him. Welcome break from
the white world of the hospital and its clash of pungent perfumes,
its soiled bedsheets, lemony cleansing solutions, acrid antiseptics,
hothouse flowers, rank festering flesh.
The slanting rays of the sun, still fierce on an immense slate
of bleached sky, steamed the hospital lawn, glued the parking-lot
tar. The dank air resonated with the atonal hum of insect energy.
Symphony of famished worms, he thought ruefully, gathering for
the feast waiting just on the other side of this door.
A sudden mournful ache, hollow and unfocused, overtook
him. But whom did he really mourn? An expiring sister in there,
seldom seen, scarcely known, barely recognizable anymore, soon to
be floating out of herself? No, it was himself he sorrowed for, himself,
a couple of weeks short of a milestone birthday, half a lifetime
squandered, pissed away, and dying just as surely as she, only daily,
increment by increment, puff by puff . Conducting his own requiem
in advance, dirge supplied courtesy of an invisible swarm of bugs.
What they’re doing, these crusading nicotine zealots, by banishing
us from their haloed presence, he further reflected, dourly
now, is creating a breed of solitary, morbid philosophers. Seekers of
occult mystery in wisps of smoke.
His cigarette had grown a tail of ash. He ground it under a
heel, defiantly lit another. And just as he put a flame to it, a most
handsome woman clad in a satiny blouse and designer jeans came
through the door, paused, the shed a pack of Capris from a Gucci
bag slung over her shoulder, and shook one loose. The flame in
his hand still flickered, and so in that wordless bond that links
a renegade fraternity, he offered it to her. She favored him with
a small smile and ever so lightly touched his hand in a steadying
gesture. Fetching gesture, fetching smile. Up close this way,
he could see she wasn’t young but not yet old either, a ripened
thirtyish somewhere; by his best estimate, forty tops. Around a
plume of smoke, she said, “Another second-class citizen?”
“They’re turning us into a bunch of sneaks.”
“Or worse yet, wimps. Where’s Bogie when we need him?”
“Who?” she asked.
“Humphrey Bogart. Remember him? Tough as nails, and he
always had a weed stuck in his face.”
“How about Bette Davis? Nobody crossed her.”
“There you are.”
One thing you had to give your habit—it was an instant icebreaker.
Something to be said for that, particularly when your
commiserator comes equipped with a dizzying cascade of platinum
curls; good bone geometry; skin lacquered to a high sheen;
a generous crimson-glossed mouth; eyes a cool blue but with a
glint of worldly mischief in them; and pliant, slightly plumpish
curves under a fashion-statement outfit. Like this one did. All
of which he assimilated in a sly sidelong glance, as he no longer
pondered his own mortality but rather the enduring quality of
lust, how it occasionally nods but never really sleeps.
“You visiting somebody?” she asked him, turning the talk
elsewhere, extending it. Promising signal.
“A sister,” Jim said.
“Is it serious?”
“That’s a shame.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, well, cancer always wins.”
She took a long, meditative pull on her Capri. the third finger
of the cigarette-bearing hand, he noticed, was bedecked with
a gaudy rock the size of a boulder. Generally—though not absolutely,
in his experience—a bad signal. In a stagy, breathy voice,
she said, “I’m real sorry.”
“No need to be,” he said with mock solemnity. “Doctors
determined it wasn’t your fault.”
For a sliver of an instant, she looked perplexed. Then, as she
got it, her smile widened, displaying an abundance of teeth, dazzling
as neon and much too perfect to be anything but orthodontist
enhanced. Jim gave her back his player smile, oblique,
distant, hint of evasiveness in it. Dueling grins.
Hers departed first, displaced by an earnest expression. “Is
“Centered,” she repeated, as though the echo explained itself.
“Afraid I don’t follow,” he said, baffled by the corkscrew twist
in the conversation and wondering if maybe this time the joke
wasn’t on him.
“Like, in tune with her spiritual center.”
Evidently no joke. “Well,” he said, “we’ve never been what
you’d call God-fearing people. She taught math, some community
college down here. Numbers are—were—her religion.”
“Got nothing to do with religion,” she declared, a little impatiently.
“No? What then?”
“Energy. Strictly energy. See, I read this book by this Indian
guy—from India, I mean, not your American kind—where he
shows how we’re all a part of this one big spirit. Only he calls
it energy. Cosmic energy. And it’s, like, steady. Never changes,
never dies. What we call ‘dying’ is just trading energies.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“And what you got to do,” she plowed on, voice elevating
urgently, “when your body’s ready to pass, is zero in on it, your
place in this energy field. That’s what centering is. Sort of like
finding your way home.”
“Interesting theory,” Jim allowed, thinking they all have to
come with some wart, physical or otherwise. Even the best of
them, like this dumpling of sex here, with the loopy-energy hair
up her sweet apple ass. Too bad. Terrible waste.
“Changed my life, I can tell you.”
“Bet it did at that.”
“What I do now,” she said, “is try and help people get in
touch with it. Their energy center. That’s why I’m here. My best
girlfriend’s mother—she’s about to pass too.”
Sounded to him like some spiritual fart cutting, with her
being the therapeutic Gas-X. But what he said was, “Sounds sort
of like volunteer work.”
“Guess you could call it that. See, growing up, I wanted to be
a nurse. Never did make it, so this is the next best thing.”
“You? A nurse?”
“I always wanted to help people.”
Yeah, right. “I see,” he said cautiously, radar suddenly alert
for a scam coming on.
“So you think she’s centered yet?”
“Who we’re talking about here…your sis.”
“You got me.”
“If you want, I could speak to her.”
Finally the pitch. Everybody peddling something. Pretty
prosperous clip too, by the looks of that stone weighting her
finger. Unless, of course, it was fake. “Appreciate the offer,” Jim
said, “but I don’t think she’d be very receptive.” Figured that’d
be the end of it. Any good fleecer knows when it’s time to
Figured wrong. “OK,” she said breezily and, in yet another
of those bootleg turns, added, “You’re not from around here, are
“How could you tell?”
“You guessed right.”
“Reno, Vegas—they’re like Florida,” she said. “Nobody’s
“So? Originally where?”
“No kidding!” she exclaimed. “Me too. I’m from Bismark.”
“That’s in North Dakota.”
“I expect maybe it is. There’s not all that many of us, either
“Hey, don’t I know? That’s why we got to stick together. What
I always say is, ‘When you’re from Dakota, you got to be good.’ ”
Jim regarded her narrowly. A corner of her wide mouth was
lifted once again in a suggestion of a smile, artful, provocative,
faintly amused. The naughty mischief he’d seen earlier, thought
he’d seen, all but given up on during the energy drone, shimmered
behind her eyes. “By that,” he said, choosing his words
carefully (for if four decades had taught him any lesson at all, it
was that a man never knew when he was going to get lucky), “do
you mean ‘nice good’? Or oh, say, ‘skillful good,’ ‘accomplished’?”
Before she could reply, a sleek silver Porsche swung into the
lot and lurched to an idling stop twenty or so yards from where
they stood. A head—male, jowly, squinty eyed, round, and hairless
as a billiard ball—poked out of the driver’s-side window like
a wary turtle emerging from its shell. She gave it a high-handed
wave, a big theatrical welcoming grin, calling, “Hi, honey. Be
right with you.” To Jim she stage-whispered, “Thee big doolie
“The worse half.”
She lowered the waving hand, abruptly thrust it at him.
“Been real nice talking to you.”
Jim took the offered hand. Grip was surprisingly firm; the
shake snappy, businesslike. “Same here,” he said.
“My name’s Billie. Billie Swett.”
“You got it. Like in the perspiration, only with an ‘e’ and two
‘t’s. Cute, huh?”
“Well, everybody’s got to be named something.”
“And you are?”
“Merriman,” she repeated, the tantalizing shimmer not quite
gone out of her eyes. “You don’t look so merry to me.”
“Inside I’m laughing.”
“Listen, you change your mind—about your sister, I mean—
I’ll be at the hospital here. Next couple days anyway. Ask around.
They know me in there.”
“I’ll be watching.”
The Porsche’s horn bleated. The turtle head squawked,
“C’mon, honey. We’re runnin’ late.”
“I’m coming, hon,” she called back sweetly, but under her
breath, softly, though not so soft as to be inaudible, she muttered,
Across lawn and lot, she sauntered, loose easy stride, studied
sway in the shapely hips. Into the Porsche she climbed, pecked
the turtle on the cheek, checked her reflection in the rearview,
patted and primped the cotton candy ringlets. And with that the
two honeys were gone, sped away, leaving Jim to speculate now
on the quirky nature of luck, which, he suspected, like gold, was where you found it.
Excerpted from the book TREASURE COAST by Tom Kakonis. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kakonis. Reprinted with permission of Brash Books. All rights reserved