It’s Christmas Eve, and there is nothing less festive than three dead children under a tree, to say nothing of their lifeless parents, each with bullet holes in their heads. It looks like the classic murder-suicide of a desperate man in a sinking hole of debt, one who doesn’t want to be “on the other side” without his family. That’s what the typed, bizarrely worded suicide note of Chafin Halliday says, anyway. Officials at the Everglades County Police Department aren’t sure, so they call volunteer forensic consultant Wylie “Coyote” Melville to observe the gruesome scene.
By day, the hero in No Regrets, Coyote, a thriller by award-winning novelist John Dufresne, is a divorced therapist and amateur actor carrying on a platonic affair with his high-school sweetheart, whose husband thinks he’s gay: “You collect Fiestaware,” she explains. “Your house is cluttered with vintage bric-a-brac. You live with a cat. You read novels. You talk about movies in public.”
Coyote spends his workdays in therapy sessions with deeply disturbed clients like Dermid Reardon, who fantasizes about becoming an amputee and schedules surgery toward that end; Wayne Vanderhyde, who has a habit of breaking into empty houses to leave hidden “secret admirer” notes for future residents; and Ellen Hillistrom, whose husband thinks Xanax is “the solution to Ellen’s current marital discontent.” His social circle is no less unique: Dufresne is at his comic finest when describing Coyote’s hard-drinking, dementia-addled father, his 300-pound sister, and the brother-in-law with a smelly yeast problem that requires copious amounts of talcum powder.
The police often enlist Coyote’s help because he has a gift for spotting what others miss, an intuitive ability to review the aftermath of a tragedy and divine exactly what sort of hell might have gone on there. “The writer of this note obscured rather than illuminated,” Dufresne writes of Halliday’s suicide note. “He muddied his motivation. He did not identify the alleged obstacles in his way or tell us who put them there. He did not explain why he thought he deserved to die or in just what way he failed at fathership. And who uses the word fathership anyway? Hood not ship, right? Fathership sounds like the lead vessel in some intergalactic starfleet.”
Among Coyote’s discoveries that night is one of South Florida’s finest in the act of stealing the dead man’s watch. When Coyote reports this ethical breach to the cop’s boss, he earns himself an enemy, but Coyote has friends in low places, too. One of them is Bay Lettique, a sleight-of-hand artist who spends most of his nights at the Silver Palace Casino “separating tourists and senior citizens from their money.” Together the two men run face-first into a nasty web of corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, and a host of other pernicious characters.
It would be safe to say that there aren’t many crime novelists in M.F.A. programs, but Dufresne teaches at the Florida International University in Miami, and his books Louisiana Power & Light and Love Warps the Mind a Little were both New York Times Notable Books of the Year. There are countless perfectly enjoyable crime novels whose pages could be ripped out as a reader goes, never to be missed. Once you know a plot or round one of its curves, who needs to read it again? But No Regrets, Coyote is a different animal altogether, a book full of beautifully written sentences and hysterical descriptions that—however random this may seem—Kinky Friedman would probably love. It deserves a permanent spot on the bookshelf.
John Dufresne will discuss No Regrets, Coyote at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis on August 20, 2013, at 6 p.m.