Island Justice. Two words. Enough to inspire a novel.
One of my favorite movies for all-time rewatchability is Jaws. A photograph of Quint in the bow of the Orca oversees my library in Maine. He’s a fine tone-setter and doesn’t fall asleep on the job. On the surface (pardon my shark puns), there doesn’t seem to be much overlap between my latest novel, An Honest Man, which is about a man named Israel Pike returning home after serving a prison sentence for murdering his father. Israel is a lobsterman by trade, and not much time has passed since his parole before he spots a yacht adrift, rows out to see what the trouble is, and discovers the bodies of seven murdered men—two of them rival U.S. Senate candidates. The one similarity would seem to be Israel’s home location: Salvation Point Island.
Jaws attacking The Orca, courtesy of Univeral Pictures
But there’s another one. Salvation Point is an island manned by a police force that consists of exactly one deputy. Chief Brody on Amity Island in Jaws did have some help, although they don’t contribute much in the movie or the novel, but my fictional island has one man for a simple reason that is one of the inspirations for the novel: It is true.
In 2020, I read about a murder that occurred on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine. The murder wasn’t spectacular, just tragic, sorrowful violence. A lobsterman named Roger Feltis was killed with an ax after a simmering feud turned into an all-out brawl. As with most murders, the investigation was quick and simple. There were eye witnesses, there was an arrest—although, in this case, there still have not been charges, an explanation of which would take more words than I’m allocated here, and probably still leave all of us scratching our heads. But the single thing that stood out to me about this particular, real-world crime, was a passing reference to “the island’s sole police officer.”
Impossible, I thought. I’d been to Vinalhaven. I’d enjoyed one of my all-time favorite Fourth of July celebrations there. I’d had beers at the Sand Bar. Above the Sand Bar, there are a couple small apartments. In 2020, one of them was rented by Roger Feltis. Vinalhaven is a bucolic place, and the locals are mostly great most of the time, but it is still a community filled with tough people carving out a tough living 15 miles out in a tough ocean. There are problems. There are crimes. It seemed like a lot for one guy.
It absolutely did when the man accused by six eyewitnesses of murdering Feltis was returned to the island with a police escort, and someone livestreamed the event. Locals massed along the pier, shouting at the prisoner and the police. One voice, off camera, caught my ear and engaged my imagination.
“We call you, you come out, nothing fucking happens. That is why vigilantes and Vinalhaven island justice is the way we do shit.”
Enough to inspire a novel.
That’s the process for me – inspirations knock around endlessly, sweeping in and pulling back, ceaseless as the tide—and my beloved Chief Brody from Jaws met with the hauntingly wonderful phrase “island justice” and one day when I was on a walk along the coast in the fog, I thought, “What if that lone deputy was a crooked cop?” I suspect most readers will never think of Vinalhaven or Jaws, but that’s fine—I know they’re in the mix.
Michael Koryta is a New York Times-bestselling author whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has won or been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar® Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award, Quill Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Golden Dagger. They’ve been selected as “best books of the year” by numerous publications. Hiking, camping, boating, and fishing are all likely to occupy his free time when he’s not working on a new book. Some of his favorite spots are the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, the flowages of the Northwoods in Wisconsin, St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Maine midcoast.