McGee Wannabes: Bob Morris’s Zack Chasteen

A fictional tough guy who sets up shop as a McGee-type hero can operate in almost any semi-tropical clime, so long as it’s in the U.S. We’ve seen them in California and Hawaii, of course, and Alabama. But Florida has to be preferred. And any wannabe who works in the Sunshine State had better have a deep understanding of where they’re at, with an appreciation of Florida’s unique natural world.

Bob Morris’ Zack Chasteen is just such a McGee-like character. Born and bred in Florida—in what essentially is a coastal palm-tree nursery founded by his grandfather—Zack knows whereof he speaks when he editorializes (McGee-like) on how greedheads have f****d up his world. Like McGee, he was a pro footballer. He played with the Dolphins under Don Shula and before that played for Florida State. After football, he ran charter and fishing boats. But fate intervened and he was framed for a crime, ending up in a federal prison camp.

553098Chasteen’s first adventure, Bahamarama, leaps into action in the very first chapter. Just as Zack is released from prison, he walks out the gate to find two hoods waiting for him—insisting that he take a ride with them in their Escalade. Zack, of course, is reluctant to do so, as he’s expecting a lift from his wealthy girlfriend. And as nice is their ride is, he doesn’t think climbing up into the big black SUV is going to end well. The ex-footballer delivers them a thumping and makes his escape in the limo the girlfriend has sent for him.

It turns out that the drug gangster who framed Zack and got him sent to the federal pen  thinks he still has something of great value. Thus, the offer of a ride in the Escalade. But Zack has absolutely no idea what that something might be. Having escaped the gangster’s thugs once, he’s not so lucky the next time, when they catch up to him at the abandoned family palm nursery. But Zack escapes, killing one of the baddies in the process.

Now Zack wants nothing more than getting out of Dodge and back together with his magazine publisher girlfriend. Without his passport, he manages to get down to Harbour Island, in the Bahamas, where she’s supervising a big photo shoot. And though he sees her from a distance on the beach, he’s not able to connect with her just then. Ominously, she doesn’t turn up that evening or through the night, though she’s supposed to be expecting him. (There’s even a bottle of pricey champagne on melting ice in the hotel room when Zack gets there.) His hunt for her around Harbour Island is in vain. Our hero worries that she’s dumped him for the photographer on the shoot, her ex-fiancé. But the plot thickens considerably the next morning, when the fashion shooter turns up murdered.

Well, it turns out that girlfriend Barbara has been kidnapped, along with an English peer of the realm who lives on Harbour Island. Zack’s thought is that this is pressure coming down on him from the drug gangster who wants back that thing (or things) that he claims Zack has. Zack pursues a long—sometimes plodding—investigation of the kidnapping, with the help of the Harbour Island cop, his own sidekick Boggy, and various supernumeraries. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler here to say that what Zack initially thinks is one crime is in fact two quite unrelated crimes. Some bad luck, huh?

True, the drug gangster wants his McGuffin back and won’t hesitate to kill Zack to get it. But that bad-guy team turns out to have nothing to do with the kidnapping of Barbara and Lord Whatshisface. The kidnappers are a local crew who operate with a certain ham-handedness. So, as the book draws to a close, readers get to enjoy two concluding action set pieces—as Zack and his allies take down the kidnappers first and the drug thugs second.

As I alluded to above, Bahamarama does have a bit of a pacing problem, IMHO. Through the long center of the tale it drags a bit, as Zack plods through his investigative work. And what is one of the book’s strengths—its rich depiction of life on Harbour Island—also becomes one of its weaknesses, as it slows the tempo of the two interlocking (though we don’t know it yet) crime plots.

But in other respects, it’s a good, solid read. Most satisfyingly, Morris gives us a thoughtful, self-reflective hero very much in the McGee lineage. Zack Chasteen is someone it’s enjoyable to spend a few hours with, as he attempts to get his totally messed-up life back in order. He’s no Trav—who else is?—but he’s someone you’d like to know.

Bob Morris published Bahamarama in 2004. It was followed by four other Zack Chasteen novels: Jamaica Me Dead (2005); Bermuda Schwartz (2007); A Deadly Silver Sea (2008); and Baja Florida (2009). The books remain in print as e-books and are widely available in paper from used-book sellers. I contacted Morris through his website regarding any future Zack Chasteen novels, but have not heard back from him.

P.S. Just before the end of the year I got an e-mail from Bob, who says that a new Zach Chasteen book is coming up; though several non-fiction books are in the queue ahead of it. Here’s what he had to say:

Hey — Big apologies on my much delayed response. Been that kinda year.

Things go well, thanks. Working on several books through Story Farm, all nonfiction. Got a Zack novel on the back-burner that I hope to finish soon. I’ll let you know as it approaches the finish line. I appreciate your kind words re: McGee.We named our younger son Dashiell MacDonald Morris for a reason.
Thanks for getting in touch and thanks for reading my stuff.
Bob Morris