Book Review
Sunday, December 4, 2011
'Stairway to the Bottom' Finds Haskins in Top Form

By Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Another kickback relaxing weekend and I just finished reading "Stairway to the Bottom," Key West author Michael Haskins' latest (and seventh) entry in his Mad Mick Murphy mystery series. Before I tell you it was a very entertaining book, I should offer full disclosure that I consider Haskins a friend. What's more, he named a passing character in the book after me.

None of that influenced me -- much.

Like with all the Mick Murphy mysteries, our reluctant hero is a red-bearded freelance journalist who found his way to Key West from Boston by way of California. He likes cigars and Jameson whiskey and has a sailboat. He's nothing like Boston-bred journalist Michael Haskins (who smokes cigars and drinks Jameson and likes to sail) in that Haskins isn't a redhead. I'm sure there are other differences if I thought hard about them.

"Murphy's much braver than me," Haskins explained over a café con leche one afternoon.

See?

In this latest adventure, Mick gets a phone call from a guy who runs a local jet -ski rental, then finds a dead woman lying in a pool of blood beside a silenced Beretta in Dick Walsh's house.

Turns out, Walsh is not who he claims to be. In fact, he may be two other people -- a hit man for onetime Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger or a missing spy who's managed to tick off the CIA, the FBI, MI5, Mossad, DCRI and the KGB.

And now all these alphabet agencies (not to mention the U.S. Marshals and Cuban-born Key West Police Detective Luis Morales) are ticked off with Mick, thinking he knows more than he does.

Everybody seems to be chasing Whitey Bulger's hidden millions or the spy's stolen diamonds or some other elusive fortune.

The plot pays homage to Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" -- and Haskins admits that in the book. As Mick puts it, "They're all looking for something that might not exist but they keep searching."

Indeed they do.

"You want the diamonds and expect to beat the others to them with help from me," Mick says to one of the spies. "The truth is I don't know where Walsh has gone and I don't wanna know. Probably most important, or it should be, he's not the guy that conned all those diamonds from the governments. He's a psycho from Boston and I'd bet my life on it that he's never been out of the country."

"You are betting your life," the spy tells him. "The French, the Russians, even the Brits wouldn't hesitate to kill you to get what they want."

"And the Mossad?"

"We kill our enemies," he replies. "We protect our friends, no matter where they are."

"I have to be one or the other?"

"Unfortunately."

Caught in the middle of this clustermuck are Mick Murphy's fiery Puerto Rican girlfriend, Tita, and his guardian angel, Norm Burke, a mysterious government agent and friend. Making for a dangerous situation that doesn't end well.

You will meet other Mick Murphy regulars like Padre Thomas, the priest who gets his inside information from angels (the heavenly kind), and the police chief, Richard Dowley, who finds that being a lawman and Mick's pal a sometimes conflicting position. Pauly the smuggler is here, too, watching Mick's back. Not an easy task.

In addition, the book is sprinkled with the real names of such Key West denizens as Ron Leonard of Harpoon Harry's, Charlie Bauer of Smokin' Tuna, Howard Livingston and his Mile Marker 24 Band, beauteous Carol Tedesco, assorted bar maids and colorful waterfront characters ... even a dead CIA agent named Shirrel Rhoades.

The locales are familiar, from Hog's Breath Saloon to the Green Parrot, from B.O's Fish Wagon to Schooner Wharf, from Garrison Bight to Duval Street after midnight.

Haskins -- uh, I mean Murphy -- leads this conga line of not-so-secret agents on a merry chase out to the reef and back. Taking a battering in the process.

In "Stairway to the Bottom" Murphy -- uh, I mean Haskins -- gives us a mix-'em-and-match-'em who's-on-first adventure that holds your interest from the first page (Dick Walsh's phone calls) to the last (plotting revenge against the Russian mob).

Personally, I enjoy a story where the author is having as much fun as the reader. And Michael Haskins is certainly having a good time in his current incarnation as a popular mystery writer.

He credits his sister for helping him understand that "dreams are part of life." As he says, "I got on with it and she was right."

He also thanks his old drinking buddy Kris Kristofferson whose music "helped me make it through the night and any number of days."

Several locals get a nod for helping with the book, ranging from advisor Jim Linder to editor Nadja Hansen to photographer Rob O'Neal for "taking my photo and running it through PhotoShop enough times to make me appear human." And Mike Dennis, Jessica Argyle and Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen, writers who offered their helpful critiques.

But in the end, "This story is the result of many hours of being locked in a room alone with my imagination and a laptop," he says.

I told you I liked the book. It may be Michael Haskins' best. But, truth be told, I would have liked it better if he hadn't killed off certain characters -- including that CIA agent with a most familiar name.

Key West Island Books will have a signing on Friday, Jan. 13.