Review: The Grand Turk File by John Waite

The opening of The Grand Turk File, a leisurely description of the Turk and Caicos islands, the setting of the primary action of this novel, lets you know right away that you are in the hands of a competent and confident writer. It does not, however, suggest that you might need to fasten your seat belt for the wild ride to come, but that might be a good idea. Grand Turk is most definitely a thriller. However, exacting characterization, careful pacing, and good writing make this book much richer than the average thriller.

Lieutenant Liechester Jones, known to all as Slats, of the New Orleans Police Department tries to stop a drug smuggling operation only to find that importing heroin is the least of what these criminals are up to. The plot does require the reader to suspend a great deal of disbelief, but the story is so compelling that’s not hard to do. Subplots involving a broad cast of characters bring the typical thriller action into some proportion. Waite’s characters are deep, and they unfold gradually and naturally as the story progresses. His settings, both in the islands and in New Orleans, are detailed and evocative.

Multiple POVs give a panoramic view of the action, yet are managed seamlessly enough that I didn’t get dizzy from shoulder hopping. We often see the same scene from two different points of view. This technique can be tricky. When it doesn’t work well, it can be either confusing or simply annoying. Here it works very smoothly. Despite a complex plot with many characters, Waite keeps tight control of his story.

Waite also captures the despair of poverty, and the homesickness of expatriates and political refugees. You won’t often find thoughtful well-written passages like this in a thriller:

People grabbed for any pleasure, any relief from lives of tedium; draining it from countless glasses, sucking it from smoke and ash, injecting it, and fornicating with it in damp beds in dark corners. They pursued happiness so hard that they outran it. They tried to buy it, or steal it, but all too often they simply killed it.

Waite layers his images nicely. In one passage a character is described as “trying to find comfort” while on a stakeout in a car that is too small for his long legs. Yet the phrase resonates on another level as well: The character has been dreaming of a past encounter with a prostitute while dozing off in the car. Waite is good at this kind of subtle, yet nonetheless powerful imagery. He doesn’t pile it on so thick that it distracts from the exciting plot, but includes enough of it that the book is deeper and richer than you might expect from a story like this.

There are a few blips along the way, a cliché or two, some rather purple passages, and a few irritating repetitions (it seems that everyone is “tossing off” drinks). And there are far too many exclamation points! But all in all this is an extremely well-written book that is fun to read. I think some best-selling thriller authors could learn a few things from Waite. If you are in the mood for an action-packed story that has more to offer than merely action, be sure to give The Grand Turk File a try.