Author: James Ezell
Publisher: Author House
Price: $20.99 (Paper)
It is no surprise that a cataclysm like the 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa would spawn a lot of written responses, in several genres.
The “Tuscaloosa News” won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its reporting by Twitter and Instagram— necessary since the power to run the presses was out. Kim Cross produced a brilliant study, “What Stands in a Storm,” making use of research into private texts and first responder emails and messages sent during the very moments the tornado was destroying homes and lives.
Jim Ezell’s “Debris Cloud” also makes use of these very new media.
As the novel opens, on April 27, two men are robbing an old lady of a wooden box full of jewelry. She resists, and is fatally struck in the head by the box.
Simultaneously, in a Tuscaloosa basement, off Hargrove Road, three students are sheltering from the violent winds, clinging to a wall-mounted pipe: “but the pull was too strong, one of them was ripped away, his limbs flailing, as he disappeared into the blackness.”
The next day, a short distance away, an elderly Tuscaloosa woman in Alberta City finds a ring in her tomato patch and, without thinking much about it, puts the ring in her box of costume jewelry.
Seven years later, that ring shows up at a garage sale, then at a pawn shop, and then is bought by Dalton Randolph as a gift for his beloved wife, Genn.
The Randolphs are the husband and wife team who starred in Ezell’s first thriller, “The Cistern,” and now will become enmeshed in a new tangle as they, along with the Tuscaloosa police force, attempt to determine the origins of that ring, which turns out to be a three-karat emerald solitaire and worth maybe thirty thousand dollars.
The sleuthing begins with the inscription in the band, leads to the man who pawned it and then to a nearly destroyed cell phone which had captured some of the last awful minutes in the life of a university student.
“Debris Field” becomes, for a while, a police procedural, a kind of CSI story of recovered cell phone images. But then Ezell unleashes a whole collection of plot threads.
After two years, Genn and Dalton still suffer from nightmares and PTSD from their near death in a Black Belt cistern with 23 rotting corpses in it. In their nightmares and flashbacks, Ezell brings the reader up to speed on the action of “The Cistern.” Not all of this is strictly necessary, especially for those who have read the first book.
Now some of the rotten Atlanta criminals from the first book reappear and the story quickly includes drug dealers and addicts, pimps, prostitutes, car thieves, murderers, gang-bangers and foul creatures of every kind. There are car chases and cold-blooded contract murder. The action moves through Tuscaloosa, Northport, the UA campus, country roads in fictional Tombigbee County, and even to a seedy motel in Decatur.
Ezell, bravely I thought, tries to carry most of the action in dialogue and is modestly successful. But dialogue is perhaps the toughest element in fiction. When it is even a little off, too wordy, it can sound wooden.
Ezell also tends to over-explain. The contents of every room don’t need listing and the reader does not need to be told more than once or twice that the creepy pimp drives an Escalade. This action-based novel is sometimes slowed by too much description.
The warm relationship of Genn and Dalton is again pleasing and believable, and there is, to brighten an otherwise violent, bloody scene, a heartwarming story of recovery and young love, nicely told.
The sequel to this sequel has already been written.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.