Hard-boiled crime fiction comes to Martha’s Vineyard

Michael West at "Islanders Write" in August.

Did you know there are secret agents on patrol from Squibnocket to the outer tidal rip of Wasque Beach? That incendiary drones packed with accelerant are crashing into 25,000-square-foot trophy houses, setting the cedar shingle roofs ablaze, and burning the whole caboodle down to the ground? And that an Afghanistan war vet with martial arts skills, now a good ol’ boy Islander who drives a cab, will be caught up in the middle of this dangerous mishmash and take it upon himself to save the day?

Poet, songwriter, computer consultant, and author Michael West of Vineyard Haven has, in the past few years, seemingly knocked out a novel every couple of months. Three of them feature the ex–special ops Marine, Sam Hill. Mr. West has branded the oeuvre “Martha’s Vineyard Eco Thrillers,” which means that what’s at stake for the good guys is the fundamental health of our planet against nemeses as evil as Ernst Blofeld, stroking his white Persian kitty. The atrocities thus far rendered are threats to the deep blue sea as in “XOC — The White Shark Murders”; our frightening crash of beehives in “BUZZD — The Bee Kill Conspiracy”; and now, the human hive itself collapsing all around us on the Island as the year-round housing crisis escalates in “ROOFS — A Year-Round Place to Die.”

Mr. West banks the fire so it will burn for the length of the novel, as demonstrated by this opening line: “In the grand finale there were rockets streaking and chrysanthemums blooming to the sounds of the muffled gunshots or hard rain dancing on a hot tin roof. The sirens started even before the last multicolored embers had faded from the First Night sky.”

Baby, it’s cold outside. Snow is on the ground. Ludicrously large houses are being targeted for hellfire and brimstone by some shadowy homegrown terrorist group (the acronym of the title stands for Radical Order Of Freedom Seekers), but the absolute worst baddie is a nasty Senator with a waterfront compound on Sengekontacket, the very existence of which breaks every environmental rule in the book. But Senator Rotenborough’s eco violations are the least of his crimes. He has schemes afoot — economic, political, personal, and sexual — that make Blofeld look like Father Christmas.

Our erstwhile hero, Sam, is pulled into the fray from past sleuthing jobs rendered in the first two sagas. Now the feds who need his help know how to finagle him out of his taxi and into ninja mode. He’s smart and he’s dexterous, and he can do a number with a pork-greased kitchen knife that will make you careful not to tee him off the next time he’s chopping cucumbers in your kitchen.

Meanwhile, as happens in a satisfying series, the hero’s circle of friends have grown on you; all cool people to hang out with on a drizzly winter day. There’s the bossypants Emma, Sam’s on-and-off-again lover, whose job as a selectwoman makes Sam leery of confiding in her that, say, he’ll be strapping on a Glock that night to perform reconnaissance on a human-trafficking situation up-Island. When all goes well, he gets to live with Emma in her idyllic cottage beside a lily pond off Lambert’s Cove Road. When she gives him the boot — again — he’s back to his rebuilt digs in the arts district of Cottage City. The abode was burned to the ground in the preceding saga. Mr. West seemingly has a taste for arson, vicariously, of course, in his storylines.

Sam’s good buddy from the Afghan mess, tattoo-laden Isaac, is now happily married to the lovely Melissa, and Sam’s personal Obi-Wan Kenobi, named Max, is always available for the dispensation of wisdom as he meditates beside his pond. Max is appalled by the recent outbreak of political dirty tricks, and he shoves some stringent advice down Sam’s throat. Another key player is Emma’s gay brother, Randy, tech geek extraordinaire, who could hack into the Pentagon before he’s had his morning cup of coffee.

Michael West has both vacationed and lived year-round on the Island going back to the 1970s, and has thus carried over a crash course for his fictional hero in Island ways and lore: the ripped jeans and battered trucks, the potluck dinners, beloved bands and singers — all called by their real names, such as Good Night Louise and Jemima James — the hearts of gold, and the secret woes of the dispossessed as the too-rich pile on to make everything bright and new and unaffordable.

Michael West delivers a truckload of causes over which to fret and strut, and yet he never clomps us over the head with them. We form a natural bond with the story and the characters, except for the baddies, whom we instinctively and joyously hate. All the while the drama and the action just keep comin’ atcha. Nowhere does any of the clean and concise narrative bog down.

Book reviewers are loath to go out on this particular hyperbolic limb, but “ROOFS” is unputdownable. The picking-up part is easy: It’s $18, at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.