on Feb. 05, 2013
With “The Tinderbox,” David Holmberg, a veteran newspaperman, has turned out a kind of prequel to “The Hurricane Murders,” which he published in 2010. Both novels have as their protagonists a hardboiled newspaper reporter (though the characters are different). “The Tinderbox” was originally to be published by E.P. Dutton in 1989, but fell off their list when they merged with New American Library. It has finally found life as an e-book published by Smashwords.
In both novels, Florida is sweltering, both in temperature and temperament. The heat seems to make everyone crazy. In this case, the racially charged murder of a black youth by a Cuban policeman, Carino, lights the fuse of the tinderbox of the title. Mike Baedeker, a reporter for the Miami Times, observes much more than he or the police had planned, and he becomes caught in a violent web of racial politics. Other than him, there doesn’t seem to be anybody to root for; most of the characters are corrupt, cynical, sarcastic or violent. As experienced as he is, he is outgunned by the sheer force of people who hate him, or what he stands for. Like a Hitchcock character, he seems wrongly accused, by his colleagues, his girlfriend, the police and the community, though his only crime is in paving a road with good intentions.
Holmberg has a way of tossing off colorful descriptions, almost offhandedly, that paint a clear picture. He describes a hotel’s lobby as having “the kind of dreariness peculiar to the worst Beach hotels ... a smell of decay was mixed with the smell of suntan lotion.”
There are a few too many digressions, and many characters to keep track of, but occasionally Holmberg really gets the plot rolling. The character of Mulvaney, who has the thankless job of prosecuting Carino, is a small role, but particularly well written. He’s the kind of no-nonsense straight arrow you might see venting prosecutorial outrage on TV shows like “Law and Order,” and his cross-examination of Carino and summation demonstrate that Holmberg has a good ear for this type of dialogue. Although it was a different genre altogether, parts of the book are reminiscent of the old Darren McGavin TV show “The Night Stalker,” whose monster-battling newspaper protagonist had the same cynical but determined drive to get at the truth. That’s a trait shared by Jake Arnett, the hero of “The Hurricane Murders,” suggesting that with some tinkering, Holmberg might have a character on whom to pin a series, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta.
A colleague suggested that the book might make a good movie. I’m not sure about that. Racism is the perpetual elephant in the room of American society, and most people are reluctant to discuss it, much less read a book or see a movie about it. More than 20 years after Rodney King plaintively asked, “Can we all get along?,” the unfortunate answer is still, for the most part, a resounding “No!” The re-election of President Obama notwithstanding, racism, by people of all ethnicities, is still a sad, dirty fact of American life.
This book poses more questions than it can answer, but that in itself might at least get people thinking.