In the acknowledgments section of his second novel, Poisonfeather, Matthew FitzSimmons writes: “When you write your first book no one cares. Not cruelly but in the casual way that most people don’t care about other people’s hobbies. In retrospect, disinterest in my writing proved a godsend… if you’re lucky, as I have been, a publisher says, ‘That’s great, we’ll publish your book. Now do it all again.’ Suddenly, there are stakes, expectations, pressure. After writing your first book on your own time, writing the second on a deadline is akin to learning the steps to a familiar dance, only backward… and in heels.”
The acknowledgment comes at the end of the book, and I was not surprised to find that writing Poisonfeather had been a bit of a struggle. It’s a solid thriller, but pales a bit in comparison to FitzSimmons’ first book, The Short Drop, which was one of the very best books I read last year. Drop introduced the character of Gibson Vaughn, a onetime teenage computer hacker who was caught, tried, and then given a choice by the sentencing judge: go to prison or join the Marines. Vaughn chose the Marines. His stint in the military turned his life around, so when now-retired Judge Hammond Birk summons Vaughn, he feels he has no choice but to go.
It turns out that Judge Birk has started developing dementia, and he lives on a farm in a filthy single-wide trailer. Unfortunately, the judge invested all his money with a Bernie Madoff type named Charles Merrick, and talked several relatives into doing so as well. Now Judge Birk’s nephew and a friend of his want revenge. They suspect that Merrick, who is about to be released from prison, will be fleeing the country with a sizable nest egg. “Money’s electronic now. If he hid money, stands to reason there’s a digital trail,” says Birk’s nephew. “We need your computer expertise to take the money. Help us take back what belongs to us.”
The search for Merrick’s money takes Vaughn to the town of Niobe, WV, where the disgraced financier is serving his time. Niobe is so well-described that I figured it had to be real, and I Googled it hoping to see photos of the town’s dilapidated bridge and elegant but decaying historic hotel. (Turns out it’s fictional.) Vaughn is joined by Judge Birk’s nephew’s pal Swonger, and the pair meet and team up with a Niobe bartender who has her own complicated reasons for wanting revenge on Merrick.
The book’s denouement is over-the-top violent, with a massive body count. (I lost track of the times Vaughn came within a hair’s breadth of being killed.) The ending teases the reader by dropping the names of a couple beloved Short Drop characters who are MIA in Poisonfeather. Even though the new book doesn’t quite live up to the almost impossibly high standards set by FitzSimmons’ debut, I’m still firmly on board for volume three of Vaughn’s adventures.