“Vanished in the Dunes”
Oceanview Publishing, $25.95
In this exquisitely neurotic tale of sex, murder, and guile, the author gives the East Hampton police investigator a special name, Detective Peter Wisdom. Detective Wisdom may be the most sensible character in the book, but for all his canny, down-home instincts, a disappearance and presumed murder goes unsolved for months.
Nevertheless, Detective Wisdom is invaluable for his virtues — his patience, his trained eye, and his balanced restraint. Detective Wisdom is the benchmark for normalcy. Nearly every other character in the book is either crazy or being driven that way. Sex, sexual obsession, love and love unrequited, and vengeance are the driving forces.
“Vanished in the Dunes” by Allan Retzky is a looking glass into crisis-driven circumstances that successful people have brought upon themselves. As the pages turn, it becomes a convoluted, unpredictable morality play. Writing in an edgy present tense, Mr. Retzky invites the reader to track the machinations, manipulations, and obsessions of characters who drive themselves first to extremes, then to crime.
Behind the masks of normalcy, opulence, and refinement lies a fractured moral center. In this book, promiscuity and temptation have disastrous ramifications. All of this unfolds against a Hamptonized backdrop easy to recognize, from the Jitney stop in front of Victoria’s Secret on East 86th Street to shopping at Citarella, a bran muffin at Starbucks, and the dangerous curves of Old Montauk Highway.
The novel centers on one Amos Posner, a despondent ex-commodities trader who is under federal investigation for irregularities, that is, serial bribery. His wife is on the brink of leaving him for suspected infidelities. She continues practicing law in New York while Posner licks his wounds in their sumptuous Amagansett beach house, where “the smallest thing can set him off into an orbit of worry. . . .”
Like his felonious blunders in business, Posner’s problems are of his own making. But it is guilt that sickens him. Still, against his own best instincts, he invites a wantonly seductive stranger into his house, one he encountered on the Jitney. One who shouldn’t be there in more ways than he could guess. The story accelerates into a finely crafted riddle with more sinister loose ends than a plate of spaghetti.
Mr. Retzky taps into the thoughts and disturbances of his characters’ emotional and rational (or irrational) goings-on. They come alive because he does more than write their dialogue; he eavesdrops on their innermost thinking, putting it into words we can read. This clairvoyance about sexual obsession, rage, vengeance, guilt, and ever-stalking anxiety provide the internal landscape for his people.
Characters move through the story as if guided by robotic malfeasance and furtive desperation. An attraction to wrongdoing is part of their DNA. Even Detective Wisdom’s boss, who is trying to quit smoking, is fighting temptation.
The author takes great pains to explain their reasoning, and, if necessary, he will cast light on biographical childhood trauma. This may be a cerebral book, but in such lavish and lofty surroundings, mostly in Amagansett, it is also an occasionally smutty one. It would have to be in order to depict the decadent seepage beneath higher civilization.
In one snippet, vulnerability to temptation goes like this:
“Perhaps some red wine,” she suggests.
“I guess I can do that,” he says, but there is edginess in his answer. He feels as if he is sliding into a deep pit without a handhold.
. . . She reallocates her skirt so that he has a clear view of her browned upper thigh. She spreads her legs more than slightly. The invitation is clear.
And here, for example, he describes the thoughts of Dr. Henry Stern, a radiologist: “He has learned to control his emotions when he speaks with patients and their primary care physicians. He has built up a wall of false bravado during such conversations, always faking the positive, which will give them a tortured future of discomfort and occasional pain as well as hope.”
A few minutes later, the same master of manipulation “begins to sense he is lost. Utterly lost or bewitched, it doesn’t matter.” The book brims with inventiveness like this.
None of these internal monologues are stagnant. They open windows onto the characters’ sins, fears, murderous plots, or plain craziness. In addition to which, Mr. Retzky gives us gunplay, car chases, sexual abuse, murderous rage, and a grasp of language that is nuanced and deadly precise.
The author’s economy, vertiginous plot twists, colorful dialogue, and blindsiding surprises cram huge entertainment into only 224 pages. “Vanished in the Dunes” has the appearance of light reading, but it carries heavy freight. Neurotic compulsions, guilty pleasures, sins of omission, toying with temptation — all of these are linked to the human propensity for making disastrous choices over small-seeming matters. This is not just a book about good and evil, but about recognizing both, then choosing one over the other.
Allan Retzky is a conspicuously fine writer and a clever one. The ending is brilliantly conceived. It is amazing how much trouble can unreel from one tiny indiscretion.
Jeane Bice is a writer who lives in Springs.
Allan Retzky, who lives in Amagansett, will read from “Vanished in the Dunes” on Aug. 4 at 2 p.m. at the Montauk Bookshop and on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Amagansett Library.