After reading The Cardinal’s Sin by Robert Lane, the third book in his Jake Travis series, I decided to read his first book, The Second Letter. My intent was three-fold. First, I wanted to meet the characters as first presented, and second, I had immensely enjoyed the third book, and lastly, I had read a review by another reader who said she was put off by the violence in the first novel and I couldn’t reconcile that with the amount of violence, or lack of violence, actually, in the third book. My instincts were right. I didn’t find this a very violent book at all. In fact, there was none until almost the very end of the book.
The Second Letter begins in the early 60s in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the beginning, or possibly the continuation, of American intervention in “helping” other countries turn to the American model of democracy. We are introduced to a delightful lady whose late husband had been a “dashing Secret Service agent before such men even existed” and, on this particular day, it was exactly 101 days since her husband, Jim’s, death. His friend and colleague shows up at the home Dorothy and Jim had created from an old stone church near Boca Ciega Bay. Her young gardener, Angelo, not only cares for the landscape but is very protective and a little bit possessive of Dorothy. Ted Sullivan has a brief visit before asking Dorothy to keep a letter safe as he worries that something might happen to it and feels it should be preserved. He tells her she can read it if she wants but she doesn’t want. After he leaves, Dorothy and Angelo think of a safe place to bury the letter: outside in a hole Angelo had been trying to figure out what to use to fill.
From there, we fast-forward about 50 years to the double life of Jake Travis in Key West: his cover is that of a repossessor of autos, whereas in reality he’s a contract worker for a government agency. His next assignment? Retrieve a letter that has surfaced and is being used by a petty criminal named Raydel Escobar to try to blackmail the IRS into overlooking his debt of $7M. Dorothy’s house is now a museum, an outside corner of it has been vandalized, and Jake’s boss, Col. Janssen, thinks this is where the letter came from and he wants it back.
There are a couple of ways Jake can go about this, and there are people in his life and work who assist him. His girlfriend, Kathleen (an alias), is in the witness protection programme. Jake and his working partner, Garrett try to get the dirt on Escobar in order to blackmail him into turning the letter over, and find more than they expect.
I was curious about the 2nd letter in the story. About half-way through I thought I knew what the second letter was but it turned out I was wrong. I wondered if that had been a deliberate red herring. As I had been in touch with Mr. Lane, I thought I’d ask him if he had the title set before he finished the book and knew there would be “a second letter”. Here is his reply:
The working title was In the Shadow of Good. I wrote the opening chapter without a clue that there was a second letter in the envelope. I didn’t even know what the first letter was about. The envelope was sealed in my mind, even as I approached the end of writing the novel. Once I mentally opened it, and a second letter fell out, (a love letter of all things), I realized the second letter was the central theme of the novel. It harkened beautifully back to the opening scene of the book and Dorothy Harrison.A deliberate red herring? Perhaps. I write for myself and I like surprises. I also know my mysteries are more of the heart and less of politics and law.
Lane portrays a rather dark side of Washington and I wondered if any real-life stories had influenced his portrayal of the congressman.
Not consciously. I read Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent a zillion years ago. Perhaps it left a taste of how nasty Washington can be. Jake needed to be in that mode to meet his objective.
I had quite a few more questions for Mr. Lane and will print the full interview (which we conducted by email) later in the week. I really enjoy the characters in this series — the way Jake copes with distancing himself from unpleasant things he has to do, his relationship with Kathleen, his routines and hangouts, his partner and friends and his ability to improvise. He reminds me of other characters I have read and like. That, and the surprises that crop up unexpectedly, are what make this series a really fun read. * * * *
It’s easy to participate in my Mystery Monday meme. Just post a review of your latest mystery read on your own site, and then a comment on my post with a link to yours. Simplicity itself! I look forward to learning about more great mysteries to add to my ever-growing list of To Be Read.