Friday, March 12, 2021

"Keeper of the East Bluff Light," by Kevin Parham--Fiction Review

For today’s review, we’re heading to Emerald Island for a murder mystery involving a lighthouse by Kevin Parham called “Keeper of the East Bluff Light.” 

Kevin Parham

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I like the setting of this story since I’m a fan of nautical and seaside stories. Having worked on riverboats myself, while I never worked on ocean-faring vessels, I enjoy stories about sailors. The lighthouse was interesting as well, and I enjoyed the bits about what being a lighthouse keeper entails, especially over generations of time. 

At the end of the narrative, in this story’s legal portion—while not an exhaustively precise take on a criminal court case—it’s still next level sublime. Little touches like knowing about the hearsay rule exceptions show an uncommon level of knowledge and care for authenticity.

In fact, one of Parham’s greatest skills as an author for me is his attention to little details, be they historical, situational, or occupational in nature. At the beginning of the story, he captures that gut-wrenching feeling anyone who has worked on the water knows. It’s when the weather unexpectantly changes, and the whole character of the water transforms in moments. 

Parham has the steeled nerves to tell a story that doesn’t pull punches on characters even though they might be likable. This can be hard to remain objective on—most people aren’t too keen on making their heroes suffer. I do, however, feel that this good storytelling impulse did lead him to make at least one overcorrection, which didn’t make sense to me though. 

What I don’t love about this book:

This story’s focus lacks a center, other than the lighthouse itself, which causes it to feel like a series of short stories tenuously related. Writing a story without a single protagonist is a valid artistic choice, but it means that the non-character elements need to go above and beyond, and I didn’t feel that they did.

Each third of the novel reads like a completely different novel from another genre. That alone would be an ambitious feat to pull off, but it’s hampered here because the cast of characters tends to change with each phase. The characters retained between phases rise and fall in relevance to the story being told at the moment.

There are at least three occasions within this story where my suspension of disbelief snapped, and I didn’t feel that the story logically flowed. To be fair, though, at least one of these was partly due to a miss-read on my part, which I’ll explain further down in the spoiler section.     

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

First, we’re introduced to the erstwhile captain Samuel Biggs who serves as the protagonist for the first third of the story. He’s being informed by the Coast Guard inspector Jones that they are looking into what, if any, involvement the lighthouse Sam keeps had in a recent naval accident. 

Sam’s career as a sea captain ended when he was struck by three tragedies, results from a storm at sea. In quick succession, he lost a crewman, lost his ship, and finally lost an arm while trying to save his ship and crew. Therefore, the one-armed captain Biggs lost nearly all of his standing on Emerald Island— his home—and would never command another vessel at sea professionally again.

Still a young man, though, an elderly friend of his convinces him to train under him to eventually become the lighthouse keeper at the East Bluff lighthouse. Still mourning his former life’s death, Sam is a little hesitant at first but pretty quickly gives in to the suggestion. It’s about at this point that Sam ends up on a date with a pretty young woman who works at a local tavern. The date turns into a one-night stand, and she gets pregnant but doesn’t inform Sam. Instead, she leaves Emerald Island to raise the baby alone. 

As the full-time lighthouse keeper, Sam eventually falls in love with a different woman, who has an equally tragic past to rival his own. They get married, live happily for a few years—despite the fact she can’t have children—and then she’s killed tragically at sea while sailing for pleasure’s sake. Sam is incredibly lonely and depressed until one day, a mysterious young man named Jason shows up on his doorstep. Jason is actually Sam’s long-lost son from that one-night stand years ago and sought out his father to get to know him, but doesn’t inform him of their relationship. What he does do is ask Sam for a job at the lighthouse. Sam agrees and trains Jason to be his assistant, and as such, father and son work together at the East Bluff Light for the next year.  

Things soon unravel with the return of the Coast Guard inspector—inspector Jones. Jones had informed Biggs that the Coast Guard was working on a report assessing if there was any malfeasance at the East Bluff Light that may have contributed to a naval accident a year ago. Jones delivers the report to Biggs, and the gist is that the Coast Guard is suggesting that the lighthouse be upgraded. As part of that upgrade, Biggs will be fired as the lighthouse keeper. Sam and Jason try to appeal the decision, but it becomes quickly apparent that the appeal judges have already made up their minds. Jason, however, is retained by the Coast Guard to help with upgrading the lighthouse with electricity because of his stellar academic credentials involving advanced research into electromagnetism and light waves. 

Sam encourages Jason to take the job but doesn’t manage to climb back out of this depression set off by the latest shock. Ultimately, he throws himself off a cliff but doesn’t die immediately from his injuries, though. He lingers on for a while in the hospital, where Jason gets the opportunity to finally tell his father that he is his father before he passes.

The lighthouse is upgraded with a new electrical lamp, and the story takes on a different tone. Several acts of violence, sometimes culminating in murder, start cropping up on and around Emerald Island. Each of these crimes has one eerie thing in common, they were all committed by people who report having been looking at the East Bluff Light when it suddenly seemed to pulse with a strange light, unlike its normal beacon. Things become so bad that a special investigator from the FBI—agent Max Landcomb—is called in to get to the bottom of things. It quickly comes out that Jason’s research at MIT that involved light waves had a mind control application to it, and so he quickly gets fingered for the crime.

The final third of the book plays out as a courtroom drama, where Jason is represented by a lawyer who was one of his father’s friends. Over the course of the trial, the lawyer proves that while Jason invented the technology, he had not installed it at the lighthouse. Still, it was installed by someone else, at Jason’s superior’s direction. Jason’s superior was no other than Inspector Jones, who kicked off the story’s central crises. 


“Keeper of the East Bluff Light” feels like three stories, a generational family drama centered on a father-son relationship, a murder mystery with sci-fi elements, and finally, it concludes as a courtroom drama. 

It bills itself as being a mystery, but the mystery elements—with the possible exception of the shipwreck at the very beginning—don’t really start until about 45% of the way through the novel. By that point, characters with complete arcs from establishment to death have lived, shuffled off the story’s stage, and were replaced with new characters, only adding to the confusion of what the book’s central thesis is about. Ultimately, I believe its core is about relationships, especially familial, and how actions often have very unforeseen consequences. 

To start breaking down the three places, my suspension of disbelief snapped; first, I want to talk about the timing of when Jason shows up in the narrative. Unless you’re reading carefully, which I had to go back and do, it almost sounds like with Jason’s trial six months as assistant lightkeeper and then working alongside his father for a full year at the lighthouse, that Jason was there for a year and a half. So it wouldn’t make sense why Jason and the inspector don’t seem to know each other when the inspector delivers the report to Biggs a year after the accident. That isn’t the case, though, because reading carefully, it’s implied that Jason actually started working at the East Bluff Light only shortly after the inspector informed Biggs of the accident at the beginning of the story. Jason didn’t work six months trial period, then one full year as a full assistant. It’s just that the first six months of his total time working alongside his father was probationary. By making both periods about one year, the story’s sequencing begged for this kind of mental grinding.

The second thing—and in this case, I couldn’t reread it to get past it mentally—is the conceit that while Jason may have invented the lightwave technology installed at East Bluff Light, he wasn’t the one who installed it and used the technology. I’m not saying he should have been the murderer in this story. My problem is we’re clearly to believe that Jason is one, a genius, two, helped upgrade the lighthouse, and three, was the principal lighthouse keeper while the light was being used for murder most foul—how did he not know that HIS technology was one, installed, and two being used to cause people to become murderously psychotic around the island? 

The third thing is actually a violation of the maxim, “it rains on the just and the unjust,” in an unusual way. It can make for good storytelling to show a genuinely evil character get away with something in the short, or even the long term, to demonstrate the authentic principle that sometimes, life is just unfair—but only if it makes sense. I feel that was the spirit in which Parham was in when at the end of the narrative, Inspector Jones never seems to get his comeuppance for murdering people with a mind control lighthouse. It comes out in court, near the end of the story, that if it wasn’t Jones, then he was likely on the shortlist of people who it could have been, so the idea that the worst thing to happen to him is that the Coast Guard just reassigned him—feels unreal. It really diminished my opinion of that crack FBI agent Landcomb, who was at the trial, like why didn’t he think to open an inquiry about Jones? 

Parting thoughts:

If I were to reclassify “Keeper of the East Bluff Light,” I would have branded it speculative fiction rather than a mystery—despite having a problem with macro genres in principle—while hypocritically writing in such cross-genre by default myself. I’m a complicated idiot.

As a genre, speculative fiction has a lot going for it since you can reasonably call almost any fiction speculative fiction other than a few outliers that would be an argument anyways. Trust me, if you google image search it, the Venn Diagrams are numerous and often contradictory. This leads me to my first problem with any macro genre—focus problems are almost baked into the concept. When people talk about literary books or speculative fiction books, it’s hard to think of one book that you can say the title of, and everyone will know exactly what you mean. It lacks the crispness of “Sherlock Holmes” equals mystery, and the “Lord of the Rings,” fantasy, or “Dracula,” is horror.

The opposite extreme, of course, is overly specialized subgenres. Once you get past the layer of sword and sorcery, cyberpunk, cosmic horror, et cetera, to specific types within those subgenres—you’ve lost me. Once you start telling me about your cyberpunk derivatives story or nanopunk epic, it isn’t that I won’t read your story, but still, I’m not anymore sold on it just because it’s got its own ever more specialized special name. I care about who is in a story and what happens to them far more than the subgenre’s specifics.

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