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By now, all you Canadian snowbirds will
have winged your way home, and may be
considering some light summer reading
for the Canadian beach or cottage. For
laugh-out-loud fun, an irreverent look
at Florida culture and spine-tingling
suspense, include Phyllis Smallman’s
Highball Exit in your holiday hamper
or E-reader. Phyllis Smallman is a multi-
award-winning author who spends
summers on Salt Spring Island in B.C. and
writes in Florida. She has referred to Florida
“as a giant bug-light for crazy people”
attracting them from all over.
Smallman’s protagonist, Sherri Travis is
a captivating, in-your-face bartender
with a sassy mouth and a gritty sense of
humour. Sherri has managed to survive
life-threatening adventures for four books;
Highball Exit is the fifth book in the series.
It is set in Jacaranda, an isolated barrier
island town in western Florida.
Highball Exit can certainly stand by itself
as an entertaining read, but I am glad that
I had read some of the earlier Sherri Travis
mysteries – if only to keep up with Sherri’s
ongoing hilarious feud with Bernice
Travis, the former mother-in-law from
hell. The time period is Florida after the
housing collapse. The mood – depressed.
The long lines of out-of-state licences are
not arriving as usual. Sherri Travis is three
months behind in her mortgage and it
will be last call for her Sunset Bar and
Grill if she doesn’t immediately come up
with some cash. Business had been way
down the previous winter, leaving Sherri
“pirouetting on the edge of bankruptcy.”
She was considering possible solutions,
but, “When you grow up in a trailer park on
the edge of a swamp, you just don’t make
the right social connections to stave off
Then Aunt Kay arrived with an offer that
might solve the problem. She would make
the mortgage payments if Sherri would
spend a week with her, investigating the
death of Holly Mitchell – one of Aunt
Kay’s beloved after-school friends. Holly
was a flighty, model/actress wannabe
who had worked briefly for Sherri as a
waitress (at Aunt Kay’s suggestion, of
course). Holly had been a terrible waitress
– always dreaming and talking about
fame and celebrities, instead of doing
her job efficiently. It seems that Holly had
committed suicide by taking a highball of
drugs – thus “The Highball Exit.”There were
two main questions: “Was it suicide or
murder?” and “What happened to Holly’s
baby?” Holly had taken tiny Angel to visit
Aunt Kay just months earlier. She had
even asked Aunt Kay to care for the baby
temporarily. Another mystery was the fact
that the police, landlords and even Holly’s
real mother insisted that no such baby had
ever existed. They even implied that Aunt
Kay was suffering from dementia.
As Sherri and Aunt Kay investigated Holly’s
past, they were surprised to find that
she had lived at a very swanky address.
The puzzle was how this flaky girl could
afford a unit in such an upscale, exclusive
Sarasota condo. This quest then led to
escort agencies and the dangerous, murky
world of sex workers, drugs and celebrity
perversion – the underbelly of Florida
Smallman’s writing style is snappy, funny,
intelligent and as current as today’s
headlines. She’s such a talented storyteller
that you can not only see her characters,
but smell them. Aunt Kay was a sweet,
pudgy little old lady – a Miss Maple-type
who could con her way into the most
private buildings and then end up having
tea with cranky managers who confided
everything. She smelled of “rose-scented
talc” and “comfort and safety” to Sherri
who, like Holly, had been one of Aunt Kay’s
latchkey, after-school kids.
Ryan Vachers, on the other hand, was a
handsome, murderous psychopath who
ran the Angel Escort Agency with his
brother Cal, a menacing little person (a
veteran of Sarasota’s circus era). When
Rick hit on Sherri, she was repelled by
his breath – “the overwhelming scent of
decay” – a result of constant drug use.
Phyllis Smallman certainly knows how to
ratchet up the suspense. Think of being
alone, late at night, in a solitary beach
house, knowing that you’re being pursued
by a foul- breathed psycho – looking into
the darkness to see “a light where no light
should be…for a second only.”Was it a
cellphone? Highball Exit concludes in an
explosive climax that could only happen
in Florida.
Enjoy the Sherri Travis mystery series. They
are all available on Amazon.
By Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, 243 pages, $18.95
Willa McLean
is a
freelance writer who
lives in Brampton.
A Sherri Travis Mystery