“Cooler Heads:” A comic thriller and laugh-out-loud look at Vineyard life


“Cooler Heads” by William Harlan Richter. 333 pages. $14.95. In paperback from Small Fry Books, Santa Monica, Calif. Available at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books.

If you love reading about the wacky customs and mores of Island life and its people, particularly in winter, this is the fiction beach-read for you.

“Cooler Heads” is terrific, the first novel by William Richter, a third-generation Island resident and an established Hollywood screenwriter. He’s a pro and has delivered a fast-paced, comic tale plotted around Island issues and personalities that are completely recognizable. He knows Island turf and his dialogue sounds like voices we hear every day.

Mr. Richter has set the novel over one week during the improbable January thaw we enjoy nearly every winter before the deep freeze. That’s handy because the plot requires lots of wandering around in the woods.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure about this one. “Cooler Heads” is sort of about birders and the woods. I like birders but I don’t like the woods and the only things I’ve ever recognized in them were mosquitoes, and once, a 1993 Volvo station wagon off Deep Bottom Road.

No worries. While the central plot revolves around the search for a rare bird that doesn’t actually exist anymore, the subplot involves a greedy stop-at-nothing developer who has big plans for Nomans Land. He’s hired some career criminals to make sure he gets to put McMansions on top of the World War II ordnance.

Our hero, Ned Donlin, summered here on his grandparents’ farm in what feels like the Lambert’s Cove neighborhood in West Tisbury. Now in his mid-30s, Ned’s back and on the lam.

On his return three years before, Ned convinced the board of the Music Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary, located on his family’s former land, that he was an accomplished naturalist. In true Island style, they did not check his story. Instead, they made him the director of the financially strapped center.

Ned’s larcenous background came in handy almost immediately. The sanctuary is the last-known habitat of Vanellus Caucasus, the Caucasian Lapwing, last seen more than 30 years ago. Ned has developed a fundraising lapwing scam. He’s quietly sold the right to search the lapwing’s last-known nesting area to a whole bunch of well-heeled, off-Island birders and promised exclusive rights to all of them.

It’s worked so far. Ned’s been on the run from outstanding flight warrants in a host of jurisdictions. As long as the Sanctuary is below the radar and viable, life is good in the only place he’s ever felt at home.

But real estate mogul Arnie Speck has another idea. He wants to develop Nomans Land just off Aquinnah, and Arnie needs to quash an unfavorable environmental impact report that would deep-six the project faster than stampeding piping plovers. He brings in Ned’s old crew for the job, including his former, hauntingly beautiful girlfriend, who’s boss of the criminal crew and addicted to violence.

Then it’s on. Mr. Richter has assembled a cast of hilarious and very familiar Island characters and visitors, including lots of rich people, a U.S vice president, hordes of Secret Service agents, laconic Island cops, a drug-dealing landscaper, and The Cooler: a fabled, secret Islander-only bar, deep in the woods.

“Cooler Heads” thrums along quickly and humorously with a fantastical plot that’s part of the fun.

On the final page of “Cooler Heads,” Mr. Richter teases us that a sequel might be in the works after an Islander in The Cooler complains about roaring animals and strange goings-on down Quansoo Road. In an email earlier this summer, Mr. Richter said a sequel is in the works.

“I can tell you that the next story also features an exotic avian visitor to the island…one with very special skills, including the ability to really, really annoy Ned Donlin,” he promises.

Mr. Richter also promises a bookstore visit to the Island in late July or August, dates to be determined. He’s booked with Anne Bassett on her MVTV show during his visit.

If you’re an Islander or a resident, you’re probably too busy working to go to the beach for the next couple of months. Pick up a copy anyway. This book will make you grin in February when the snow is melting under your collar and you’re baying at the moon.

Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.