A Beach Town Where Broken People Go to Disappear

THE STOLEN COAST, by Dwyer Murphy

If you, like me, lament the absence in modern-day Hollywood of the whip-smart neo-noir thrillers that flourished in the 1990s — films like “One False Move,” “The Last Seduction,” “After Dark, My Sweet,” “Red Rock West” and “Out of Sight,” to name a few — then I have great news for you. It comes in the form of Dwyer Murphy’s second novel, “The Stolen Coast,” which offers all the abundant pleasures of those films, and more.

Of course, many of those movies, like “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Out of Sight,” were themselves based on classic noir novels, and Murphy’s follow-up to his strong debut, “An Honest Living,” makes a convincing case for inclusion on that shelf. It’s a twisty, enthralling heist yarn, sure, but what strikes you most is the confidence.

As the editor of CrimeReads, a website devoted to crime fiction, Murphy certainly knows the canon and he makes it clear that he’s taken his studies seriously and applied them exceptionally well. He deftly conjures a universe of hucksters and operators that’s sodden with atmosphere, crisscrossed with shadows (literal and moral) and loaded with the threat of a double cross any time two people shake hands.

The two hand shakers at the center of this story are Jack and Elena. Jack is a lawyer for the family business started by his father, an ex-spy. The business: hiding people, typically for shady reasons, by shuffling them around Onset, Mass., a small tourist town that’s just down the coast from Cape Cod.

If the Cape is old money and white-shoe blue bloods, then the Onset of the novel is, as one character describes it, “a Big Rock Candy Mountain for lowlifes and runners.” Jack explains that the town was founded by so-called wreckers, scavengers who’d “lie in wait for shipwrecks and salvage what they could.” They did what they needed to in order to survive. That pretty much describes Jack’s clientele. It also describes Jack.

Elena, an old love interest who fled to New York, slides back into Jack’s life, arriving in Onset with a scheme and a come-hither glint. She enlists Jack, who is not hard to persuade: He’s the moth to her flame. The plot involves rough diamonds, a crooked lawyer and a bunch of international hoodlums. Everyone’s bent — that’s a given. The key is recognizing the angles.

The significant delights in “The Stolen Coast” lie not so much in how it all unfolds or unravels but in the dance between this intoxicating pair: their sly words, their weighted glances and their worthless promises.

“It’s been too long,” Elena says, when they first bump into each other. “I’m sorry I stayed away.”

“That was the arrangement. Everyone needs an arrangement,” says Jack.

“Is that what it was?” she replies.

Jack’s pas de deux with the bewitching Elena is no less compelling for the fact that he knows from the start that it’s doomed: Either she’ll bolt, or he’ll bolt, or they’ll wind up buried together. Through it all, Murphy’s language is precise and evocative, with nary a word set wrong. He describes “a beach town in the weeks after the season ends” as suffused with “an immaculate melancholy,” writing that “nearly everyone was glad to be rid of the tourists, but then there’s no denying the void.”

In a mid-book interlude of impressive virtuosity, Jack chaperones a client down the coast toward a resolution that’s worthy of a better “Sopranos” episode. And the novel’s own crescendo is smart and satisfying in exactly the way of an inevitable surprise. Onset is a town you’ll be happy you visited, where broken people hope to be hidden. Once there, they reliably do their best to do their worst, struggling to come out on top or at least to stay afloat. But through it all, there’s no denying the void.

Adam Sternbergh’s most recent novel is “The Eden Test.”

THE STOLEN COAST | By Dwyer Murphy | 282 pp. | Viking | $27

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