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Between Two Fires is the first novel in the planned trilogy Dread Desires from Toni Williams. This debut is a murder mystery set in the Caribbean on the fictional Elysian Island off the coast of St. Lucia as well as in the city of Soufriere on Saint Lucia. While presented at first as the story of a man getting entangled and overwhelmed by a smart, independent-minded woman, the story quickly takes a turn into more familiar thriller territory. In fact, Williams creates a sort of Caribbean crime noir novel which manages to not just fit the genre well but open up a lot of interesting possibilities with the storytelling.
It’s not rare to encounter escapist island fiction, a species of the thriller/romance novel that appeals to the vacationing sensibilities of casual readers. But there is a rather strong Caribbean literature that is at once literary and generalist that isn’t as nearly as well known as it should be. For me, the genre has always been on the periphery yet ever present. I’d find an old Stuart Hall article in my files and go on a binge or decide I needed to read more Jamaica Kincaid, but it always needled me that I was merely rehashing and not discovering new, contemporary writers from Barbados, Trinidad, Haiti, Jamaica, etc. Just because you read Derek Walcott doesn’t mean you understand the richness and variety of the literature of the Caribbean.
It was after I had finished Roxane Gay’s novel An Untamed State (a challenging work of fiction), that this really hit home with me. There was a whole field of English literature of which I had only the most superficial grasp. Enter Toni Williams’ novel Between Two Fires that takes as its setting the island of St. Lucia.
The dynamics are set immediately from the outset. When cruise ships come in and tourist flood the island revving up and sustaining the weirdly managed neo-colonial economy, it’s all too easy for the sun-seeking white faces to dismiss the island’s everyday inhabitants as merely hospitality stewards. Williams sets his novel squarely in the face of not so much the tourist aspect as the ultra-privileged and disconnectedly wealthy British colonial past.
Rudy Philips, a native from St. Lucia who has been living in England for most of his adult life, encounters the femme fatale of Bridget Tennyson, the age inappropriate wife of Lord Edward Tennyson. At the novel’s opening the two have already embarked on an affair. Rudy arrives on the fictional Elysian Island off the coast of St. Lucia to further pursue the romance with Bridget under her husband’s nose. Elysian Island is Lord Tennyson’s private Eden or, at least, was until the British aristocrat squandered his wealth. In a bid to get back on track financially, Tennyson hires Rudy on Bridget’s recommendation to ghost write his memoirs. It’s a lucrative opportunity for the struggling journalist Rudy as well as a means to further his tryst with Bridget.
Bridget is no pure woman of leisure or kept trophy bride, she owns and manages a highly successful stock-trading firm on the island. That firm deals heavily with the Elysian Island Company, the corporation that has essentially bought out Lord Tennyson to create a hideaway for the mega-rich. The marriage between the Tennysons is all but dead, and it feels as though Rudy enters into this world to be the final nail in the coffin. Tension is inescapable as Tennyson’s insistence to write his tell-all memoir sets him (and Rudy by proxy) against the Elysian Island Company and Bridget.
But soon enough what appears to be the major plot of the novel–can Rudy juggle an affair and the lucrative freelance opportunity without getting bogged down in the melodrama of the ultra-rich—vanishes. A murder of a local Elysian Island celebrity changes the tone of the novel. Soon Rudy is being framed for the murder and feels compelled not only to investigate to clear his name but to somehow bring justice to the dead woman.
It feels odd that a freelance journalist would feel the drive to not just wash his hands of the entire ordeal once his name is cleared. As the novel points out, “There’s a big difference between being an investigative reporter and a crime investigator.” Rudy soon discovers this fact and while it seems strange that he time and again refuses each and every opportunity given to him to leave this drama behind (and there are several), Williams shows us Rudy’s motivation by constantly providing a rich psychological monologue within his hero. Rudy’s internal narrative is given to us warts and all:
“Rudy was bewildered by it all. What confounded him the most was that he couldn’t tell where or not it was all being done in jest or if perhaps there was some sort of parodic subtext to the whole serio-comic farce.”
And again when Rudy finds himself at a party hosted by his mistress and patron:
“He felt like an outsider, which was somewhat unusual for him. He was normally at ease in social gatherings and mingled freely. He took pleasure in seeing people warm up to him. No, for the first time, he felt inhibited and emotionally detached from the people around him. They made him feel inadequate, despite their cordiality. He wasn’t sure if they were the problem or if it was him and this was what irritated him.”
When the murder takes place and Rudy begins to dig into it, he soon realizes that he is well out of his element. Suddenly the story is no longer about an affair and the machinations of the wealthy on their private island, but a tour through the seedy crime world of St. Lucia. Paradise is abandoned as Rudy discovers not just murder, but human trafficking, drug cartels, and cybercrime on an international scale.
When the story moves from the fictional Elysian Island to the ‘mainland’ town of Soufriere, the action and suspense get revved up. It is here, also, that the narrative acquires the characters I hope will show up in later Dread Desires books. There’s Trini the ex-detective and St. Lucia insider, Ras Isley a deft and fearless cabby, bored playboy Aaron Ashdown, Lord Tennyson’s personal assistant Vernon, and Amin a computer wiz kid. The eventual conclusion of Rudy’s investigation and his attempt to exonerate himself gives us so many more pieces to play with that future books from Williams should be quite fun.
I have but two major negative criticisms of the novel. First, throughout much of the novel the point of view is through Rudy’s perspective. There are times that Williams shifts perspective to another character (Bridget or Trini) in order to move the story along before returning to Rudy. Yet this maneuver feels forced and out of joint with the rest of the narrative. I like the idea and think it would work better if it was used with more regularly as does George RR Martin, but to simply do it haphazardly weakens the storytelling. Second, the story does a good feint like most solid detective fiction does with its initial plot. All noir gives you the surface tension underneath which the real story is taking place. However, Between Two Fires felt like it became the novel it wanted to be only by its last third.
I certainly believe that Williams will provide an even stronger follow-up. There’s no reason not to read Williams’ novel if you are a fan of crime thrillers or murder mystery. It’s wonderfully refreshing to have a new locale and a new take on a tried and true formula.
Between Two Fires
About the Author: Born in Saint Lucia, Toni Williams has lived most of his life in the Caribbean. He’s a journalist and former newspaper editor, and a
Reuters Fellow (Green Templeton College, Oxford University).
Presently, he does mostly freelancing, including editing the St.
Lucian lifestyle magazine, Dazzle. He’s finally pursing his lifelong
dream to become a fiction author. He blogs at Caribbean Book Blog
which provides writers and readers with updates on new books and the
latest developments in the global publishing industry.
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This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons Rachel Racicot and Tyler Whitesides.