Originally created 08/15/04

Writer's debut novel steps back in time to 1940s Amagansett



These days, the sandy dunes of the Hamptons are known as the summer playground to the rich, the famous and their hangers-on.

But in 1947, the Hamptons were still primarily a collection of small fishing villages that were just beginning to come to the attention of the wealthy.

It's this setting that dominates "Amagansett," the debut novel from screenwriter Mark Mills that pits the outsiders against the area's full-time residents in a tale of murder, greed and love.

The result is a book that is intriguing for its intricate mystery but much more interesting for its lush history lesson.

"Amagansett" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 394 pages, $24.95) opens with fisherman Conrad Labarde discovering the body of a New York socialite caught in his nets. Authorities rule the woman's death a drowning, but the fisherman suspects foul play in part because of his knowledge of the waterways and currents.

Labarde, a decorated World War II hero with his own demons, begins his own investigation into the woman's death for personal reasons - he was secretly involved with her. His investigation takes him into a world of wealth both enviable and perilous, and leaves Labarde looking for revenge.

Meanwhile, Tom Hollis, an East Hampton police deputy, begins a separate investigation into the woman's death. Hollis also has his own demons, having been forced to leave the New York City Police Department amid a corruption scandal.

When Labarde shares his suspicions about the woman's death with Hollis, the two men begin an unlikely partnership that takes them through the Hamptons, giving readers a look at the once flourishing fishing industry on the South Fork of Long Island.

Mills, who wrote the movie "The Reckoning" starring Paul Bettany, ties the plot together with the history and cultural changes in the post World War II Hamptons.

For example, Mills tips his hat to the area's legendary residents. In the book Labarde's fishing partner, Rollo, is the grandson of Capt. Josh Kemp. Mills has said Kemp is a nod to the famed Captain Joshua B. Edwards, the Ahab-like figure who hunted whales off the coast.

Mills also writes about Amagansett's colorful coastal history, detailing everything from the technique of casting nets off the ocean beaches to whaling to the trading and illegal smuggling.

But most interesting is Mills' use of the conflict between the modern money brought in by outsiders and the centuries-old way of life of the locals.

Labarde, for instance, is asked to lead a fishing charter for a group of weekenders, including suspects in the woman's murder. The group's lack of understanding of the sea and a working boat sets up a confrontation between Labarde and the suspects.

Also, there's a fictional meeting of the area fishermen to discuss a move by a lawmaker to ban commercial fishing in areas of the Hamptons. It's a scene that was drawn on history when a developer tried the very same move years earlier.

Mills' book is perfect for those looking for a little more - more plot, more story - than the typical summer beach read.