'A Dark and Lonely Place' By Edna Buchanan. Simon & Schuster, 415 pages, $26
As legends go, John Ashley and his gang of bank robbers, moonshiners and pirates who worked the state's back roads during the early 1900s probably have been forgotten by most Floridians. Unlike other outlaws turned folk heroes, Ashley, his girlfriend Laura Upthegrove and his band never quite had the press – or the blockbuster movies – as did Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and their ilk.
Fabian and Karen Black. Enough said.
Edna Buchanan combines these desperadoes' tale with that of a 21st century cop wrongly accused of murder in the uneven, tepid "A Dark and Lonely Place," a novel that is part historical, part contemporary. While Buchanan does include some clever bits of business to suggest that the original Ashley has a modern incarnation, neither story is compelling. Both are marred by shallow characterizations and banal dialogue. The historical facet starts well but succumbs to the prose version of a list of events, while the weaker present-day facet starts tepidly and grows preposterous as it substitutes shootouts and chases for plot.
Yet Buchanan strongly immerses the reader in the vagaries of Florida, from the historical camps and settlements of the Everglades to the streets and neighborhoods of 2011 Miami. Buchanan's vast knowledge of historical and current South Florida shines in "A Dark and Lonely Place." A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1986 for her crime reporting at the Miami Herald, Buchanan also captures the spirit of honest police work.
The historical elements have all the right ingredients for a thriller -- two young people deeply in love, forced into crime because of vengeful cops and a corrupt judicial system, set against the backdrop of the still uncivilized Everglades. During the 1900s, Ashley and Upthegrove were sweethearts and neighbors in the backwoods along the Caloosachatchee River near what is now Fort Myers. The Ashley clan eventually moved to the West Palm Beach area. Favorite son John was accused of murdering Seminole trapper Desoto Tiger, which he claimed was self-defense. Before his trial, he and Laura went on the run.
The modern story revolves around Sgt. John Ashley, a decorated and highly respected homicide detective pulled into the high-profile murder investigation of millionaire lawyer Ron Jon Eagle. At the crime scene, John falls instantly in love with Laura Grove, a model who resembles the girl he has dreamed about since he was a child. The attraction is mutual. When John is falsely accused of murder, the two go on the run, aided by John's extended and loving family and a few trusted friends.
"A Dark and Lonely Place" hints at inescapable destinies, at love that transcends the decades, and that injustice and corruption are timeless. But both plots are predictable. The historical story is the more compelling as John evolves from an ordinary hunter to a notorious criminal whose reign lasted from 1915 to 1924 when he was killed near a bridge over the Sebastian River. While he was accused of crimes he physically could not have committed because he was hundreds of miles away, Buchanan elevates Ashley to a kind of Everglades Robin Hood.
The modern John Ashley's story sags under the plethora of high-ranking police corruption and incompetence with a finale that abruptly screeches to a halt.
"A Dark and Lonely Place," a valentine to Florida and its history, can't hide its shapeless plots and unbelievable dialogue.
Meet the author
Edna Buchanan will discuss "A Dark and Lonely Place" at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, 305-442-4408; at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at Murder on the Beach, 273 Pineapple Grove Way, Delray Beach, 561-279-7790. Buchanan also will be at the Miami Book Fair on Nov. 20 at 11 a.m.