In the opening pages of John Dufresne’s newest novel, No Regrets, Coyote (Norton, $25.95), protagonist Wylie “Coyote” Melville, a therapist and volunteer forensic consultant, gets a call from his friend, Everglades County police detective Carlos O’Brien, to size up a murder-suicide case. Known for his highly developed empathy and intuition, Wylie’s often brought in to spot evidence the cops might otherwise miss.
“I could read minds,” he says, “even if those minds weren’t present.”
Or not alive.
At first glance, it looks as if restaurateur Chafin Halliday has killed his wife, his three children, and then turned the gun on himself. The police are ready to close the case. But what Wylie sees at the crime scene persuades him to investigate further, and he enlists the support of his friend Bay Lettique, poker-player and magician extraordinaire.
A man who can make a parakeet in your iPhone fly out and land on his shoulder, Bay explains why the average person misses the magic of sleight-of-hand: “I tell you I’m going to lie to you, and then I lie to you, and you believe it. Because you want to believe.”
And with that claim, Dufresne defines the action in this shapeshifting thriller. While Wylie and Bay take on the bad guys, what’s running in the margins is a meditation on much larger issues of identity, loss and duality. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
Best known for Louisiana Power and Light (1994) and Requiem Mass (2009), Dufresne now joins the venerable ranks of South Florida crime writers — Carl Hiassen, James W. Hall, and the late, great Elmore Leonard come to mind — with a think-piece of a mystery that keeps asking, as any good psychoanalyst would, “And why is that?”
And like any fruitful therapy session, Dufresne’s narrative branches out from the main plot, front-porch style, at every opportunity. “I will appear to digress but I will not digress,” Wylie writes, in an apt description of the novel itself: “And perhaps here I would lie a bit to tell the truth, the truth of the story being the point, not the facts of the events.”
Dufresne frontloads the book with the maximum number of characters and events possible, and in short order, we find that Wylie’s life — in considerable disarray before the murder — is unraveling further. He is still pining after his ex-girlfriends. He has an obese, unstable sister who keeps trying to set him up with blind dates. A friendly homeless man has taken up residence in his back yard.
His clients have more than just the usual assortment of psychological conflicts — one believes he killed a tiger in an abandoned house, another wants his leg amputated so he’ll feel whole, and a third plans her day according to shadow patterns on her walls. The final plate in the air is Wylie’s father, Myles, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, whose yen to see the northern lights before he dies results in a marvelously bumpy trip to Alaska that coincides with developments in the murder case.
Talk about coyotes! Dufresne, the real trickster here, keeps reminding us that journey is its own reward, if not the whole point. Clearly, the Halliday murder isn’t the only mystery Wylie’s trying to crack. His mother’s suicide and his brother’s murder account for much of the knotty contemplation of existence and reality interwoven throughout the book.
Not to worry, you’ll get your noir fix. When Wylie won’t back off the case, he encounters an increasingly vicious (and hilarious) campaign of harassment and intimidation. Like his Looney Tunes namesake, Wylie zigzags through these episodes as if his world operated on cartoon physics. In the process, he stumbles into a web of corruption involving local politicians, an Indian casino, Russian mobsters, the Mafia, a Greek kingpin, dirty cops and lawyers all crammed together into crime-ridden Everglades County.
Dufresne conjures outrageous twists and turns — identities get shuffled like cards, good guys go bad, dead ones turn up alive, live ones get chopped to ribbons. There is a Fargolike scene of spectacular violence and cinematic insanity, followed by a Bondlike scene that will make you forget the Fargo one.
And c’mon, you gotta love a novel that sometimes reads like the lyrics to a Bob Dylan song:
I asked him if he thought someone was trying to kill me. He told me not to be so melodramatic. I asked him who bit my finger and broke my phone. That’s been handled, he said. Have they been arrested? I said. He said, I’ve got to go.
Most likely — let’s hope — Dufresne is laying the groundwork for a series. If so, we can continue to learn a lot from his Coyote, a seeker whose quest for love and something to believe in dovetails brilliantly with the chaos of a thriller. After all, don’t we all have mysteries in our lives that needs solving? We just come from a different set of circumstances.
This review originally ran online at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.