I love Isabella Adams’ charming depiction of Greek family life in her debut novel, Last Man Out. The funny thing is, Adams isn’t actually Greek. And she didn’t grow up in Tarpon Springs, where her novel is set. Adams (pen name) works in North Pinellas as a family physician. She became immersed in Greek culture via her practice, where about 80% of her patients are Greek. So it’s not terribly surprising that the main character of her book, Andromeda Markos, is a Greek doctor specializing in dive medicine.
Last Man Out begins with an action-packed murder scene. We are introduced to the main character, Dr. Andromeda Markos, when our murderer seeks medical attention at her clinic after a diving incident. Markos is immediately suspicious of the man, and probes her contacts for more information on the incident. Her ex husband, Pete, mentions the death of an amateur cave diver out in Wild Boar Springs — the man's diving companion.
After talking to her friend Stacy, the medical examiner one county north, Markos learns that there's something more than just plain inexperience to blame here. Then the police call. Markos soon becomes involved in a murder investigation, working with a local detective to solve a month-old missing persons case. It may sound a bit fantastical the way I described it here, but Adams does an expert job of making it real. In the end, it reads like daily life punctuated by a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Adams excels in creating life-like characters. Given that Adams is a doctor herself, Dr. Andromeda Markos really comes to life in the pages of Last Man Out. So do the characters that play her friends, based on women she did her residency with. As a fan of quirky characters, I was particularly delighted by the ex-husband and mother characters, who read like amusing caricatures of the cheating husband and the suffocating mother. Between Sophia, the out-of-touch mother, and Kallie, the teenage daughter, mother-daughter life is well represented here.
Also well-represented are both the state of Florida and Tarpon Springs. The book is dotted with references to Florida culture — our humid weather, cold intolerance and tourist trade are all seamlessly woven into the story. The descriptions are often so vivid that even someone who has never visited the state could imagine what it's like — its look, its taste, its feel, its smell and its sound. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of the second chapter:
The Florida morning air was saturated with mist. Andromeda Markos pushed herself through the humidity, even though she felt like she was breathing in a cloud. She could taste the salt suspended in the morning fog. The mangroves nearby were rife with water birds indigenous to this area of the state. When she did not have her ear buds in, Andie occasionally heard the eerie cry of an osprey as it brought food back to its young, perched high on top of a telephone pole.
And then there are all the Tarpon Springs references — allusions to the Sponge Docks, diving, the Greek Orthodox church, Greek food, souvenir shops, the Pinellas Trail, white sandy beaches and the Gulf of Mexico. You could picture it all even if you'd never visited. And if you have visited, it's even more vivid.
After reading this crazy romp through Tarpon Springs, I couldn't help but wonder what the real doctor was like, and how the hell she found the time to write a book. What kind of doctor writes murder mysteries in their spare time? Do doctors even have spare time?
Dr. X leads a double life — in one life she is Dr. X, primary care physician. In the other life, she is Isabella Adams, nicknamed Izzy, an emerging murder mystery author whose debut novel, Last Man Out, won Critters, Preditors, and Editors Best Mystery in 2017. Izzy occasionally curses. Dr. X apologizes for this — she is nothing but professional. Izzy is a creative outlet apart from Dr. X's #1 priority: her patients. Dr. X could prescribe me some Tamiflu. Izzy could hang out with me at a local coffee shop, joke around and talk about life and literature.
Dr. X had nightmares as a child, so her mother bought her a dream journal and taught her how to practice lucid dreaming. It’s a technique that allows you to exert some control over your dreams, thus reducing the frequency of nightmares. The moment you realize you are dreaming, you are suddenly holding the reigns — or not. It takes some time to develop the technique. As an adult, Izzy uses these dreams as inspiration. She credits her dreams with inspiring the story of Last Man Out, "from beginning, to middle, to end," she says.
It’s not unheard of for artists to use dreams as a source of inspiration — The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Stephen King's Misery, Frankenstein, Stuart Little and Sophie's Choice were all inspired by dreams. Someone’s even written a book on the subject — Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving — and How You Can, Too, in 2001.
Having never used the technique myself, I found it hard to believe that someone could dream up an entire book from beginning to middle to end.
“What about the names?” I asked her, “People have names in your dreams?”
“It’s so descriptive, though,” I said.
“Is it? I guess I’ve been accused of...” She launches into an exaggerated description of herself walking down hallways, giving way more detail than anyone would ever want to know.
“You mean you’re that descriptive when you talk?” I ask her.
Her friends nod enthusiastically.
I’m never going to understand how Isabella Adams’ mind works, but I like the work that it does.
Given that Adams' main gig is doctoring, I was afraid her debut effort would be OK at best. But I was hoping it would be good, and I wasn't disappointed.