Reading The Stolen Coast By Dwyer Murphy Was Enjoyable

Reading The Stolen Coast By Dwyer Murphy Was Enjoyable

Author Scott Adlerberg takes a closer look at The Stolen Coast, the new novel by Dwyer Murphy. 

I love novels that, however subtly, employ defamiliarization. These are the books that take something the reader recognizes as familiar and through their technique and presentation make that something quite strange. The goal isn’t strangeness for its own sake, of course, but to present a world or subject in an unexpected way for the reader’s benefit.

At its best, defamiliarization creates an experience for the reader that can be exciting, mysterious, unsettling, disorienting. The experience may be any number of things, but comforting and predictable it won’t be. You might be taken on a journey where your moorings become uncertain.

“If I’m in territory I thought I knew but actually don’t know, then what precisely is the nature of this place? And where is the author leading me in it?” It’s not something easy for an author to pull off – and not every author wants to try, preferring to tread, however skillfully, within confines that both the author and the readers know well – and it’s a particular challenge for a writer working within the strictures of a genre.

Crime fiction, for example, is remarkably fluid and flexible, and the good crime writers work endless variations on established tropes. Encountering the familiar done with dexterity is a pleasure all crime fiction fans know, and enjoy, but sometimes you come across a book that hits all its marks as you were anticipating but that also delivers something else, a quality of the unfamiliar, a perspective shedding a fresh light on an area you thought you knew. Dwyer Murphy’s novel, The Stolen Coast, is one such book.

The coast in question is in Massachusetts, in the southeastern corner of the state, “next to Cape Cod.” The focal point there is the small town of Onset. Now based on numerous trips there since my earliest childhood, I’ve always thought of the Cape Cod area as a place of beaches and sand dunes, great seafood and summer vacationers, and in fact, it is all that, at least in part. Onset, which is just across a canal from the Cape, gets its share of seasonal tourists, but underneath the obvious, we quickly learn, it has another layer. There’s a side of the community that’s sort of submerged but ever present, a side that gives it an unusual atmosphere.

“Over the years Onset had gained a reputation as a place you could go to live anonymously for a while, no matter who you were and what you had done. There were always towns like that in out-of-the-way places. The experience in Onset, however, was somewhat more deliberate. A lot of careful work went into it. Sometimes it seemed like just about everyone you saw there was on the run from something. In other moments, stasis hung over the town like a cloud of gas and you would see the same faces night after night, and it felt like low tide would go on forever and the wind would always die in the flats.”

The narrator, Jack, has gone to Harvard and gotten a law degree, but his occupation is not one you can take classes for. Along with his father, a retired spy, Jack runs a business that he and his father in their tax filings call logistics and transport. In the town’s vacation homes and cottages, especially during the long off-season, they house people looking to change their identities as they await departures to places outside the United States.

Their clients include people of all types, from organized crime soldiers to white collar transgressors, and as part of his work, Jack drives people up to Canada or down the Eastern Seaboard to Florida for their prospective escapes. It’s people smuggling, in a nutshell, and it involves a degree of amorality consistent with Onset’s history. This is a town, after all, whose first European settlers were wreckers, a group of them who lived in lean-tos and “would lie in wait for shipwrecks and salvage what they could. They would move buoys in the boating channels and distort the beams from the Wickham lighthouse in order to confuse the ships and encourage them into the rocks.”

Despite what seems like a colorful life, Jack considers his day-to-day existence “parochial,” since he moves around a lot without really going anywhere. He has a set of well-defined routines, both professionally and among his friends in Onset, people with whom he talks sports and does such things as play pick-up basketball.

Not surprisingly, this being New England, the Boston Red Sox come up often, and at one point, his tiki lounge owning friend Marianne points out the unlikely connection between the film Casablanca and the baseball team. It’s that Philip Epstein, a co-writer of the movie, was the grandfather of Theo Epstein, long time Red Sox general manager.

And just as Dwyer Murphy’s first novel, An Honest Living, alluded to Chinatown in various ways, this book is imbued with something of the spirit of the 1942 classic. If Jack, a bit detached in his emotions, involved in shady business in a locale full of transients and criminals, is the Humphrey Bogart character, then his former girlfriend Elena is the Ingrid Bergman one. Elena appears in Onset unexpectedly to Jack, as Bergman pops up in Casablanca, but whereas Bergman wants to draw the hesitant Bogart into a noble cause for a greater good, Elena, in true noir fashion, sells Jack on the merits of something more selfish and basic, a diamond heist.

As should be clear, this is a book I like quoting from. It’s full of quotable gems, almost epigrammatic at times.

Jack, though he has some reluctance, is drawn in, and how this heist plays out, in its planning and execution, is a model of tension and release. But that’s not to say that it unfolds quite how you think it will, and always there are bits of elegant description that keep the reader engaged at a level separate from the plot developments. Onset itself is a character, the sliver of land on which Jack and Elena carry out their machinations, and these precise yet surprising evocations of the place certainly contribute to the book’s quiet oddness, the defamiliarization I was talking about. A fire set to serve as a distraction during a key moment in the book leads to this passage, getting at the area’s very psychology, with its region-specific quirks:

“It seemed like madness, all those sturdy old houses, all that wealth and hardheaded economy and thrift and Puritan longing, and the roads in such poor condition that nobody even thought of calling the fire department. There was no point. We were on our own. There was a sickness in that rocky land, buried deep like a mineral deposit but permeating everything. The food they ate, the decisions they made, their judgment.”

As should be clear, this is a book I like quoting from. It’s full of quotable gems, almost epigrammatic at times. Yet first and foremost, it is a crime novel, and without question, it’s a worthy addition to the heist novel variant of the genre. Much as he did in An Honest Living, in The Stolen Coast Dwyer Murphy blends plot, character, atmosphere and a certain amount of piquant philosophical musing seamlessly. The trip he provides to this coastal New England town is full of interesting attractions, just not the ones, on setting out to go there, you thought you’d want to find.


Mystery Tribune’s online archive of critical essays, covering a wide range of topics in crime, mystery and thriller genre, is available here.

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