April Read of the Month: “Wet Work,” by Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

“This isn’t what Isaac Harewood hoped to buy with his money.”

Not at all. Rather, in Wet Work, the latest novel by Tallahassee’s award-wining author Donna Meredith, Harewood expects to purchase a falsehood and restore his wealth at the expense of the well-being of the unsuspecting public.

By donating millions to a fictional Florida university and funding star graduate student Summer Cassidy’s scholarship in hydrogeology, Harewood fully anticipates Summer’s Master’s Thesis will validate his expensive foray into aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells near Tampa. All Harewood needs in return for his investment in Summer and her university are test results showing the wells will produce a viable and safe source of drinking water in water-starved Florida.

Instead, Summer, with the backing of her faculty mentor, Dr. Claire Dunham, bucks the threats and pressures from multiple sources and goes forth with her careful scientific findings: the wells are polluted with unsafe levels of arsenic and other known carcinogens. They will never provide safe drinking water. Harewood’s millions have been badly invested in the ASR wells.

Going public with these test results and analyses will surely torpedo Harewood’s plans to revive his fortune by promoting bottled “spring” water to the unknowing public and selling drinking water to Florida municipalities from the ASR wells. Thus, Harewood’s corporation butts up squarely against these two women: one, a risk-taking, brilliant but poor graduate student, the other a fierce and independent-minded scientist with a vulnerable faculty position.

Complicating things—and kicking off the action with a bang— Summer is stood up for a kayaking trip by a guy she met in a bar the night before, but goes out on the Wacissa River by herself. And finds the decaying body of an illegal immigrant who had been shot. She calls in the law, and an officer promptly finds what Summer overlooked—a bottle of her unique brand of beer near the body.

Offsetting the horror of finding a dead man and becoming the initial suspect, Summer also meets a sweet, possibly autistic, homeless child. But then she butts heads with the child’s relentless brother, an eco-warrior with a disabling physical wound as well as an old and well-nursed grievance against Harewood.

Enter a complicated and persistent cop who uses intuition aided by computer graphics, a stock broker who busts the corporate veil to find the economic truth, a politician wrenched in different directions by his innate goodness and a crude blackmail scheme, a devoted administrative assistant who knows far more than she should, and Harewood’s striking, red-haired female lobbyist with questionable ethics and possibly killing instincts—and the plot thickens.

Thus, with clean drinking water and academic freedom versus greed and twisted devotion, Wet Work is set up as a classic environmental thriller. Yet Meredith layers her plot through multiple intrigues and a maze of actions and discoveries that come together with her sharp, engaging characters to shape a fresh and engrossing entree into this increasingly crowded sub-genre of thrillers. Her plot never falters or stalls—murders, kidnapping, assaults, break-ins, escapes, and chases keep the pace fast.

As Meredith has shown her readers in prior books, one of her great strengths as a writer lies with her ability to create vivid and engaging characters. Wet Work’s main characters are all drawn by Meredith’s talented descriptions of action and reactions, and all are realistically flawed and honestly conflicted. No one is all good or all bad in Wet Work: they all have their nuanced psychological layers and their secrets. Even Harewood, potentially an obvious villain (but wait, wait…all is not quite as it seems), has his endearing foibles.

And through all of this, Florida itself is a vividly realized character. Meredith, no stranger to the wilds of the real Florida, paints a lovely description of the natural world as well as a chilling look at forces that would destroy all that is good in the SunshineState.

But, front and center, it’s Summer and her cast of friends and supporters that make Wet Work shine.

Though it contains the classic elements of a modern eco-thriller, Wet Work is not a by-the-numbers book at all. For one thing, stripped of its ecological message, it would still be an absorbing read. Plus, Meredith masters the hard task of blending in the scientific and educational facts needed to set up and explain the scientific issues in a smooth, imminently readable way. And, when she preaches on behalf of nature and ecology (which all good eco-thrillers do), she does so with a light yet compelling hand. The reader will get her point, but not be slapped up the side of the face with her message.

In that regard, Wet Work joins a proud history of environmental thrillers set in Florida. Though the modern eco-thriller might well have its roots in the science-fiction end-of-the-world and nuclear holocaust novels of the 50s and 60s (one of which, Alas Babylon, was set in Florida), this new generation of Florida eco-thrillers owes a debt of gratitude to John D. McDonald. A prolific writer from Sarasota, McDonald practically made Travis McGee a household word. Fans of McDonald and Travis won’t forget how Travis took on corrupt corporations and greedy developers who were eating up the natural Florida he treasured. And McDonald’s Flash of Green, which was made into a movie in the 1980s, set a high standard for books railing against the over-development of Florida’s fragile waterfront, just as his Condo set out the ultimate dangers of such high-risk real estate. Carl Hiaasen added a new fan base for the Florida eco-thriller with his comedic touches and his up-to-date and intricate knowledge of all things Florida. While the already impressive list of Florida eco-thrillers is growing, Wet Work holds its place with the best of them.

And like McDonald’s Travis McGee, let us hope Summer Cassidy will come back in many a new adventure.

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