An apparent shark attack death. A conspiracy to steal oysters from a shellfish grant. A movie being filmed about a Cape Cod legend that's beset by a multitude of problems. An international war criminal's thugs threatening a reporter. A land speculation scam. Sounds like a perfect summer read.
“Shark Bait” by Paul Kemprecos has all this and more. In his eighth mystery featuring retired Boston-cop-turned-charter-boat-captain and sometimes private detective Aristotle “Soc” Socarides, the Dennis Port resident captures the character – and characters – of Cape Cod, right down to the damp fog rolling over the Outer Cape moors from the dark, dangerous Atlantic.
“I think it's a fun book,” he says of “Shark Bait,” which features a menacing great white on its cover. Research for the story, which included input from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, showed Kemprecos that the predators aren't the man-eaters they're made out to be in “Jaws” and other media representations. Shark would rather eat seals than people, and if one attacks a person – as happened off Truro in 2012 – it's probably a mistake.
“It could be a fatal mistake, but it would be a mistake,” he said. A boater who frequently plies the waters off Chatham, Kemprecos realizes sharks have actually been good for the local economy, although like many, he worries what will happen if and when there's another attack.
“I really don't want anyone bitten by a shark,” he said. “Especially me.”
The apparent shark attack is one of the plot twists that leads Soc deeper into the book's story. It starts out with a local oyster farmer asking him to investigate the theft of his product under cover of darkness. Although he isn't enamored of getting back into PI work, when the engines on his charter boat blow he has no choice but to take the case. When the captain of the boat being used by a film crew is found dead, possibly the victim of a shark named Emma, Soc takes that job as well, leading him to befriend two faded actors he's admired his whole life. As the complications mount, Soc finds himself getting shot at by foreign gangsters and discovering the secret of the film's quirky but moody director.
Along the way, Soc's Greek family has a cameo, as does his old Army buddy-turned Man-in-Black, John Flagg. We get glimpses of spots on the Cape both real and imagined; the dilapidated boathouse were Soc lives is clearly on Pleasant Bay, and you can feel the sand between your toes in the descriptions of the dunes and flats along Cape Cod Bay. The big rambling house that's the base of operations for the movie crew could be in any Cape town, and of course has secrets of its own. (Kemprecos and his wife Christi live in a circa 1865 farmhouse with two cats; Soc's cat Kojak is also a continuing presence in the series.)
All of Kemprecos' Soc mysteries are set on the Cape, where the author has lived since 1961. He spent years as a reporter for Cape newspapers, raising a daughter and son who graduated from Chatham High School and who now work for the Cape Cod Five (daughter) and overseas in the pharmaceutical industry (son).
With “Shark Bait,” Kemprecos has come full circle, in a way. His first Soc novel, “Cool Blue Tomb,” centered on a salvage operation that was based on the discovery of the pirate ship Whydah off Wellfleet, which he'd covered for The Cape Codder newspaper. The novel won a Shamus award from the Private Eye Writers of America for Best Paperback novel in 1991, and led him to quit his newspaper job after 25 years and turn to fiction writing full time.
The fictional movie that is at the center of “Shark Bait” is based on the story of the Whydah's captain, Black Sam Bellamy, and his love affair with Goody Hallett, an Eastham girl the pirate was supposedly returning to visit when a storm sank his vessel. In “The Pirate's Daughter,” Goody Hallett has a daughter by Bellamy and turns to witchcraft after his ship goes down. Kemprecos thought the story was “a natural” as a movie.
“It's a wonderful legend with so many variations to it, it seemed to me that it would lend itself to a movie,” he said. He actually wrote a full movie treatment as part of his research for the novel.
“The trick was to weave together everything and have it come out and make sense at the end,” he said. There's also a bit of intrigue inspired by a real-life director who made a couple of films on the Cape a decade ago and ended up in jail; to say more would be a spoiler.
Ghosts from the past is a recurring theme in “Shark Bait,” which is reflected in Kemprecos' return to the Whydah tale.
“Maybe there is some substance to the story,” he said of the legend, “because it's making me write the same story over and over.”
After six Soc books, Kemprecos connected with adventure novelist Clive Cussler and co-authored eight books in the NUMA Files series.
“Then I burned out,” he said, and ended up going back to the well and writing “Grey Lady,” the seventh Soc mystery. He also began another series of adventure thrillers featuring Matinicus “Matt” Hawkins, the most recent of which was “The Minoan Cipher,” which was nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award.
“That was a tough book” that involved a lot of research, including a trip to Crete in his family's homeland. “I thought I would ease back and do another Soc,” he said of “Shark Bait.”
All of the Soc books are now available through Kemprecos' publisher, Suspense Publishing, in print and as ebooks. He's currently working on a stand-alone suspense novel set on the Cape but leaves open the possibility of another Soc mystery.
“It's good to change, just to get fresh perspective,” he said.
Kemprecos will sign copies of “Shark Bait” at Yellow Umbrella Books in Chatham on Saturday, July 14 at 2 p.m.