(Reviewed by Judi Clark AUG 22, 2004)
Jack Merchant is an ex-DEA agent and had been one of the best until he was forced out of service due to an incident in which a fellow agent died because of a decision he made; one that he’d make again even though the nightmares won’t leave him and he's out of a job. Now he’s living on his sailboat, Lila, in a Charleston marina, a stone's throw from Boston, on the lookout for men with Southern accents; the brothers of the dead agent are out for revenge and he figures a Southern accent will stand out in Boston. Given his history in this area, though, it would seem more of a suicide plan than a cautionary hiding place. Earlier in his DEA career, he had spent a year undercover in Charlestown, chasing down a major cocaine and PCP ring. He busted a half dozen men, who now consider him an enemy for life. Perversely, Jack Merchant feels at home in Boston and has decided to just keep a "look over his shoulder."
Meanwhile, Jack’s broke. His dock fees are due as well as the next loan payment on Lila, plus there is the never-ending boat maintenance. He has all the photography equipment left from his DEA surveillance work and he’s hoping to make some money selling photos. But that’s a long-term plan. Short term he doesn’t have an answer at least not until the morning he returns to his boat and finds Sarah Ballard on board cooking up a load of bacon and pancakes. Sarah is a "repo man," having inherited the business from her father; she specializes in boat reposssessions.
Jack and Sarah met five years earlier while he working a DEA case in New Bedford. Sarah's brother was murdered by the same drug cartel he was looking to bust. There was an unspoken mutual attraction back then, but at that time she was living with Owen. Now, Jack can see that Sarah’s taken to working out and what was already an attractive body is now powerful looking. And there is something else about her that has changed in the five years since he’s last seen her, something that says that she too has a secret.
Sarah is visiting him for two reasons, both related. She has paper on his boat and is to repossess it if he doesn’t make his next payment. Odd that he isn’t even a month behind yet, but that’s not up to her to think about. She just locates the boats that the bank tells her to find, takes hold of them, sells them and keeps the profit from the sale after the bank gets their money. But with Jack she has a different plan. She needs help tracking down another repo and wants to hire him to help out, and by doing that he will get paid enough money to keep the repo papers off his boat for a few months.
In Sarah’s experience she’s seen all kinds of ways in which people try to have what they can’t afford, but this new case is an odd one because there is none of the usual logic to it. Julie and Paul Baylor have not returned from a two-week vacation up the coast of Maine. There is a trail that shows that they stopped in Portsmouth, NH and again in Portland, Maine and then oddly there is one ATM withdrawal in New York City. Also, two separate withdrawals were made from their bank amounting to twenty thousand in cash just prior to their departure. Julie works for a start-up software company, is a founding member, and stands to gain a lot of money very soon so it is very illogical as to why she’d walk away from her life. Paul works for the same bank with the paper on the boat and he also holds a high position with no previous indication of discontent. The most logical explanation for their disappearance is that they got in trouble and the boat is either adrift or sunk, and that would make sense if they hadn’t withdrawn such a great amount of money before leaving. $20,000 is an excessive amount of cash for sailing the Maine coast for a couple of weeks.
This is the first book in a new series of Jack Merchant & Sarah Ballard mysteries. As you may well know by now, anytime a novel is set on a sailboat I’m apt to be interested in reading it and this novel has the extra attraction of being located only 40 miles from where I live. The Jack Merchant and Sarah Ballard team is a good one, believable characters each with enough history to give them depth and enough experience to give them credible skills. The plot turns out to be unexpected albeit interesting especially since it mixes in a megalomaniac financier who controls the software industry. The novel should satisfy most fans who like a good sleuthing team and mystery that logically unfolds as it goes. My only hesitation with this book is the New York City scenes interspersed with the rest of the book. They are told from the perspective of the employee who's boss has an extremely depraved sexual life. These chapters come out of the blue and given that I picked up the book for it’s waterfront setting, I wasn’t expecting them and I didn’t exactly appreciate them. Though they do eventually fit into the rest of the plot, I was still left questioning if it they were necessary. I would not be surprised to find that Eidson received editorial guidance that suggested throwing in such scenes would increase the readership of his books. And I suppose even those scenes “work” in that I haven’t been able to forget about them, which I wish I could.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and will continue reading this series. As in any novel of this genre, the trick is to create interesting dynamics between the two main characters, to make the reader want to come back again to see what they are up to; Jack and Sarah fit this mode. Anyone who spends time on the water will recognize the dynamics – Jack owns and lives on his sailboat, Sarah owns and lives on a powerboat – each traditionally serves as a metaphor for life choices. Jack is Sarah’s employee and Sarah, burned once, is compartmentalizing her life between their working relationship and their intimate one, which we all know is doomed for some rocky moments in the future. One of things about this first novel is that we learn about Jack and Sarah’s history and each has their less than honorable tale to tell about things that happened in the five years in which they were out of touch. As Sarah says to Jack, "Don't want your past life messing up my business, Merchant." Yes, I think this is going to be an interesting team.
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Repo at the author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Little Brother (1990)
- Dangerous Waters (1991)
- The Guardian (1996)
- Adrenaline (1998)
- Frames Per Second (1999)
- One Bad Thing (2000)
Jack Merchant/Sarah Ballard Series:
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- The official Bill Eidson website
- The Drood Review of One Bad Thing
- The Thrilling Detective on Jack Merchant
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About the Author:
Bill Eidson was born in Savannah, Georgia and grew up in Rhode Island. He graduated from Boston University and works in advertising and public relations as a freelance writer. He's a former president of the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.
He lives in the Boston area with his wife and son.