I took Craig Boyack’s Panama with me on holiday, and it proved to be a great choice for a holiday read. It bowls along at a fair old pace with plenty of action and a good helping of dialogue, all of which combine to keep the plot flowing nicely.
The two main characters, Ethan and Coop, are instantly likeable. Ethan is an ex-army cowboy working in the freight business, who is selected by President Roosevelt specifically for his unique ability to see and communicate with the dead. Ethan recruits Coop, a wannabe voodoo witch doctor, as his trusty sidekick and together they are tasked with an under-cover mission to prevent civil war from breaking out over the Panama Canal whilst also investigating some rather sinister supernatural goings on.
The story takes several surreal twists and turns as it navigates its way through the unlikely pair’s adventures. It’s clear they don’t have a clue about what they’re doing, which is what makes them so endearing, and which leads them into many a scrape, but they muddle along, making enemies, friends and allies as they go.
Roosevelt is not the only character you will recognise; Billy the Kid makes an appearance, and Auntie Natalie is the 1903 answer to Bond’s ‘Q’, providing them with all the guns and gadgetry they might need to fulfil their task.
As the story unfolded, I began to wonder about the enigmatic Bento; could he be the bad guy? What dark secret could Henry Antrim be hiding? Who had unleashed the dread demon El Chivato? Then there’s the Spaniards, the Columbian terrorists, the Jungle men…
Boyack’s style is sparse, stripped back to the bone. He lets his characters speak for themselves. There is no fluff, there are no fillers, every word earns its place, and the story is stronger for it. The author has a unique imagination, weaving together many seemingly un-connected strands effortlessly and with a soft touch of humour into a cohesive and well researched tale.
This is an era and a part of the world I know very little about, yet I got a strong sense of place and time through the author’s representation of it. I also learned a few things I didn’t know, for example, the segregation of gold dollar and silver dollar workers on the canal, and the conditions they lived in, or ‘were kept’ in.
All in all, this was a fun, action-packed, riveting read which I could not put down, and when I did, I spent most of my time away from the book looking forward to getting back to it. To me, that is the sign of a great story, and one that I would heartily recommend.