October Read of the Month: “N.O.K.,” by Bruce Ballister

Bruce Ballister

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

North Florida author Bruce Ballister takes his readers on a scenic, suspense-filled fast ride through the Forgotten Coast of north Florida, in N.O.K (May 2021). Myriad things about the state make it a perfect setting for crime novels, and Ballister deftly makes use of most of these: the heat, the lush but often foreboding flora and fauna, the high crime rate, a long history of smuggling, eclectic often conflicting cultures from far and wide—and that’s just the tip of the sand dune! So it is that Ballister bravely steps into a well-trod sub-genre—the Florida mystery—where N.O.K. will keep company with novels from such notable Florida authors as John D. MacDonald and Edna Buchanan. He does so with his talent for sharply carved story-telling, and enough intriguing twists in the familiar tropes to make N.O.K. hold its own in a crowded field.

N.O.K, police lingo for next of kin, is a high-stakes tale of a one-time successful journalist, Jason Saylor, who returns home to the Florida panhandle to write a novel. He’d been an investigative reporter in Texas and will soon be called upon to put those skills to work on his own behalf as he is swept into a missing person case involving a lovely young woman. Put in a police line-up, then questioned the next morning, Jason’s anxiety is well founded. He has barely met the missing woman, but when the cops bring him in for questioning, his anxieties make him blurt out things that keep digging his hole deeper. Little does Jason know how entwined he will soon become in the missing woman’s case as his connection to her deepens—and in surprising ways—as the story moves along.

Lindsey Lawrence, an attractive young coed with a troubled family history, has been missing for three days when Jason becomes the lead person of interest in the case due to two apparently chance meetings with her. She appears to be an orphan, with a considerable estate, such that her next of kin stands to profit if she is found dead. The sheriff of Franklin County seems particularly sure that Jason had something to do with why she has disappeared. When Jason offers to help investigate, the sheriff reprimands him and tells him not to get involved. But Jason is dually motivated—to clear his own name and to find the young woman. He might only have seen her twice, but she made an impact.

It isn’t long before another woman, Belle, also makes an impact. Belle is Lindsey’s roommate and in Lindsey’s absence is running the family touristy store in Apalachicola. Jason finds he is attracted to Belle even though he is not completely sure at first of her role in Lindsey’s disappearance.

Added to the mix, Jason’s old friend—now a law enforcement officer—shows up unexpectedly with a mission of his own that will only entangle Jason further in Lindsey’s case. Not too much later, Jason’s old flame appears also, evoking memories and long-buried feelings. Lindsey’s mysterious father, the rough ways of a rejected would-be suitor, the family lawyer, the touristy store, fast and slow boats, and the waterways of North Florida will all impact the carefully constructed and unfolding story.

Ballister cleverly adds a story within a story too. Jason, divorced and twice published, is writing a third novel. Sometimes he writes scenes that seem to imply that he knows more than he should about Lindsey. And, then again, as the action plays out in Jason’s life, he adopts some of it for his work-in-progress. Thus, Ballister creates a fiction within a fiction that flows through the story in a natural progression, enhancing the total impact of the book.

With criminal elements that cross the plot like newspaper headlines, questions of who-is-who and who can be trusted compound the mysteries, adding layers to the story line. The pacing, plot, danger, and characters are stellar and often steal the show, yet don’t overlook the writing itself. Ballister knows how to put words together to take the reader into the landscape of the story. Such phrases as this add to the overall richness of the story: “Countless waves lined up behind one another to meet their fate on his share of the beach.” His more fully descriptive phrases will bring the waters and coastlines of North Florida home for the readers and place them firmly in the geography. For example:

The property was totally exposed to whatever tropical force winds a storm might throw at them. It had the minor protection of the barrier island chain. Dog Island, St. George Island, and Little St. George, created by a man-made navigation channel, and St. Vincent’s were strung like a pearl necklace along Franklin County’s coastline. They took the full force and fury of hurricanes. Except for increasingly expensive repairs, the Coastal Highway rimming the mainland usually remained open. The highway and a stone revetment of Georgia granite were all that separated the campground from saltwater.

Ballister, being of course a writer himself, also nails this aspect of Jason’s personality:

Being a writer is a lonely occupation for most in the trade. By natural law, it is an endeavor done in private with only the company of the characters he/she invented. True, he’d admit after a few drinks, you do identify with them. Cheer ’em on. Get them in danger to the brink of hopelessness before you toss a lifeline. They even talked back occasionally as you typed them into a corner or steered a bad plot mechanism into something that worked better. He would share that bit of tradecraft or craziness with anyone, no matter how many drinks.

Ballister, who lives in Tallahassee, is active in several writers’ organizations and is the author of several prior books, including a series of well-received science fiction and his nonfiction Welcome to the Zipper Club: Surviving Heart Surgery and Beyond.

N.O.K. provides a satisfying crime story with plenty of action and suspense, engaging characters, and a fine hand at the writing itself.

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  1. I feel like I’ve finally made the grade as a writer; no longer having to preface ‘aspiring’ to author. Being selected as a read of the month in the SLR puts me in good company. Thanks!

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