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Book review: <i>Red Right Return: A Buck Reilly Adventure</i> by John H Cunningham

the cover of the book

When Jimmy Buffet sang “Son of a son of a sailor”, he could have been singing about this particular Buck Reilly Adventure.

The story

Buck Reilly knows that you can't get much further than rock bottom, as his experience as a treasure-hunting internet millionaire crashed him down into bankruptcy and despair. Determined to start a new and anonymous life far from the rumours and insinuations surrounding his slide into failure, the deaths of his parents, and the incarceration of his old business partner, Buck buys Jimmy Buffet's old sea-plane and settles in Key West as a salvage and shuttle service with some quiet treasure hunting on the side.

The only way is up. Or is it?

When Buck unknowingly ferries the daughter of a local minister onto a missionary boat bound for Cuba, he has no idea the kind of trouble he's getting himself into. When the missionary boat goes missing, the minister calls Buck in for salvage.

But someone doesn't want the boat found. And some people don't want Buck around at all. And some people seem to want to finish off what was started between the USA and Cuba in the sixties. And Buck is caught right in the middle.

But Buck can't let it go, even when he is threatened by weird unknowns like Santeria, the CIA, and his secret past being revealed to the world. Can he solve the mystery, rescue the girl, and stop an all out war with Cuba, while maintaining his dignity?

The style

I have a soft spot for this kind of thing, and by this kind of thing I can be very specific; lone detective-style characters who are not, in fact, detectives, but an ordinary guy who lives somewhere in Florida and is not only helping someone out but is also tackling a broader, possibly political issue. It's comedy mixed with something deeper; light-hearted and earnest. It's the kind of thing Carl Hiassen writes. Which is a good thing!

And so is Red Right Return. John Cunningham has created a wonderfully strong character in Buck Reilly; a flawed hero who is honest and good and just trying to do the right thing while being a little bit human and a little bit selfish.

And it is a testament to Cunningham's talent that in this overwhelmingly comfortable plot scenario he manages some twists that keep the story fresh and original. Instead of following the very popular and excellently managed environmental issues a la Carl Hiassen, Buck Reilly has other political fish to fry. He certainly shares some concerns about the overarching issues the keys face; such as the way the beauty of Florida has been romanticized by Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett style figures, thrown into popularity, and destroyed by hoards of unthinking tourists and the greed of developers. However he also investigates the still present tensions between the US and Cuba, and the various conspiracies surrounding these ideas. It's contextually unique enough to add interest, and the political opinions espoused are vocal,but suit the character.

Cunningham also made a bold, choose-your-own-adventure style move; which was introducing cipher puzzles into the plot for Reilly to solve and displaying the various keys to the reader, possibly in the vain hope that some puzzle-competent individual would have a go. I am not that puzzle-competent reader, so mainly skipped over these bits which where somewhat Da-Vinci-Code-esque. I suppose this element will really appeal to some readers, and can be ignored by others. Worth a mention for its oddity.

One of the things I really appreciated about Red Right Return is that Cunningham can write. In that, stylistically, there are some standout descriptive passages. I actually stopped reading at one point because he described the sea as creamy, and that was so excellently visual that I had to devote my full attention to the imagery. Cunningham clearly has a passion for Florida, the ocean, and sea-planes, and it all comes through. Furthermore, the intrigue he creates through Reilly the millonaire-to-pirate, which isn't resolved at the end of the novel, is compelling enough that I will definitely read the sequel. All in all, Red Right Return is lots of fun, definitely worth a holiday read.

Who is this book for?

People on holidays! Or wanting a holiday... it's so oceanic and tropical yet exciting. And like Hiassen, would have a widespread appeal.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Dave Barry. Carl Hiassen. Both enjoy the same thing as Cunningham, Barry leaning towards non-fiction, but has still similar opinions about Florida.

In short

Title: Red Right Return: A Buck Reilly Adventure
Author: John H Cunningham
Publisher: Wheatmark
ISBN: 978-1604947045
Year published: 2011
Pages: 316
Genre(s): Adventure, Detective Fiction
Review Type: