John Dufresne lays out the essence of his plot on the first page of “No Regrets, Coyote,” when Wylie Melville, its narrator, tells us how his friend, Bay Lettique, a professional gambler and “a sleight-of-hand man” does close-up magic.
“Bay says close-up works this way: 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.”
“No Regrets, Coyote” is an exhilarating mashup of classic noir –all betrayal and blood and breathtaking plot twists – brought into the 21st century with outrageous humor and literary gamesmanship, plus an oddly uplifting heart.
Dufresne, a longtime professor in the creative writing MFA program at Florida International University in Miami, has published four novels, two short story collections and two nonfiction books. “No Regrets, Coyote” is his first full-length work of crime fiction, and it’s a wild ride – a little Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, a little Carl Hiaasen and Dennis Lehane, a little Thomas Pynchon and a lot of fun.
It kicks off hard, with a multiple murder discovered on Christmas Eve at the home of restaurateur Chaffin Halliday. Amid carefully wrapped gifts, in a house still redolent of baking cookies, lie the bodies of Halliday’s wife and their three young children, shot execution-style, and Halliday himself, the gun lying near his right hand.
It’s a shocking event for the South Florida town of Eden (which lies, on Dufresne’s fictional map, just next to the town of Melancholy). Wylie is called to the scene by his friend, Detective Sgt. Carlos O'Brien of the Eden police force, although Wylie is not a detective but a “volunteer forensic consultant.” His day job: therapist.
Carlos calls on him because he thinks of Wylie (whom he calls “Coyote” in honor of the cartoon character) as an“intuitionist,” a kind of mind reader “even if those minds weren’t present.” He can study clothes, furniture, expressions and gestures and draw from them an idea of how someone thinks. It’s a useful tool at a crime scene like the Halliday house, which Wylie immediately sees as an impersonal “stage set,” leading him to suspect the deaths are not the murder-suicide scenario they seem.
Although he’s not on the police force, and in fact is increasingly at odds with some of them after he catches an officer stealing a watch from under the Hallidays’ tree, Wylie is too intrigued by the murders to let them go. Soon, with the help of Bay’s computer skills, he knows that Chaffin Halliday owned gambling ships and had some very shady connections. What’s more, the identity of Halliday’s wife, Krysia, might be a fiction, in more ways than one.
Computer skills are a running theme through the novel. Dufresne has mordant fun with the fact that, thanks to the Internet, just about anybody can conduct the kind of investigation that used to be the province of crusty private eyes in trench coats. One of Wylie’s patients, a reclusive grocery store clerk, shocks him by taking out a notebook and outlining the therapist’s private life: “He knew my credit rating, and I didn’t. … He knew what I had bought at Publix and at Quicker Liquors. He said, ‘You seem to think you can live on cognac, cashews, and chocolate.’ He said, ‘Do you feel violated?’”
When Wylie goes on a blind date, the woman asks him, “Why aren’t you on Facebook? Do you have something to hide?”
Not only does Wylie get out-researched by all kinds of people, he also has a fatal flaw for someone who aspires to be a hard-boiled detective: He’s an incurable optimist.
Wylie expects the best of people, even though most of the South Florida characters he meets are crazy or criminal or both. Sometimes his instinct is correct, as when a homeless man starts camping in his yard and Wylie befriends him instead of running him off. Other times, his trusting nature leads to trouble, as when he schedules several couples’ counseling sessions on the same day, and after they meet in the waiting room, the husband of one couple has an affair with the wife of another.
Wylie turns out to be a sort of anti-detective who is often, as one of the many people who threaten him says, “clueless.” But his determination never flags, even when, instead of narrowing down, the plot blossoms outward into a surreal landscape, with everything and everyone seemingly connected.
Dufresne walks the line between dark humor and violence like something of a magician himself, filling “No Regrets, Coyote” with memorable characters, sly allusions and wisecracks that are wiser than they look, like this exchange between Wylie and Carlos:
“I could use a new career myself. I used to be an observant guy, or at least I thought I was. But now I seem to miss everything.”
“You could play second base for the Marlins.”