By the third page of Bill Walsh's debut novel The Umbrella Option, Special Agent Jake Stein has staked out a Miami-area apartment building, busted up a human organ-harvesting operation, and killed one of the bad guys by firing a hollow-point bullet through a table being used as a barricade.
"Let's get this so-called doctor out of here ASAP," Stein says to his fellow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. "You never know, he might even be an organ donor."
It's not what you would expect from a book by Walsh, the affable Live 5 News weatherman. The book follows Agent Stein as he tries to stop terrorists from smuggling a nuclear device onto a cruise ship and detonating it in Miami. In the process, Stein gets tangled up with the mob, the feds, and a failed TV actor. Stylistically, Walsh draws heavily on Tom Clancy and John Grisham novels. As for the grim cop humor, cracking jokes about organ donation at the scene of a bloodbath, Walsh says he picked it up from law enforcement officers and members of the military.
"It's like we all have our inside humor, you know? Sometimes you laugh or you cry in situations that people are in, and you have to be able to vent that in some way," Walsh says.
In addition to his career as a Charleston weather forecaster, Walsh has served 19 years in the Navy and Air Force reserves. He currently works in public affairs for the Air Force, participating in missions that range from diplomatic trips to medical evacuation, and he's heard plenty of the jokes that service members make to stay sane in the field. "These people do extraordinary things every day, and to me, they're heroes. In the dialogue a lot of times, I'm just tapping from experience in how people have to deal with what they see every day."
The title itself is the book's only nod toward Walsh's 26-year career in meteorology, although it refers to a crucial plot point, not to the weather. "That's our little laugh, because most people reading the book don't know I'm a weatherman," says Walsh, who goes by W.F. Walsh in the literary world.
Walsh has written several scripts for TV pilots over the years, but none have made it onto the screen. The Umbrella Option started out as a pitch for a TV show called San Juan ICE, but when none of the studios took the bait, Walsh's agent in Los Angeles recommended the weatherman try making it into a novel. That was about two years ago, and the resulting book — written largely on vacations and long plane rides — is as heavy on suspense and action as a season of 24. Walsh went the self-publishing route, enlisting the Xlibris print-on-demand service for editing, design, and printing. When he got the first look at the cover art, an image of a boat with an explosion billowing from the top, he was impressed. "That's so Irwin Allen," Walsh says, referring to the producer and director behind disaster-movie classics like The Towering Inferno. "I love it."
Walsh did his research to make the action, dialogue, and settings as realistic as possible. While writing the novel, he took two cruises (such is the hardscrabble life of a writer), interviewed friends in the cruise industry and at ICE, and consulted with a retired Navy sailor about life on a submarine. He has firsthand knowledge of the locations, too, having spent time in Miami and Puerto Rico, and part of the novel takes place in Walsh's home state of Rhode Island.
"In fiction, you have to be real," Walsh says. "You try to be realistic, and you also have to use fictional places and characters and stuff like that, but you want to have the taste of reality when you're reading it."
A sequel to The Umbrella Option is in the works for Walsh, as is a nonfiction book about the private lives of celebrities. The working title for the latter is It's OK If You Interrupt My Dinner. So far, Walsh has interviewed celebrities including CBS sportscaster Verne Lundquist and TLC's child-pageant diva Honey Boo Boo. He's also heading to book festivals in New York and Los Angeles in coming months to promote his debut novel.
"I hope to maybe sell movie rights down the road," Walsh says. "I don't know, that's a possibility. Who knows? One step at a time."
The Umbrella Option hits shelves April 1, but it's already available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com in physical and e-book formats. Walsh will have a book signing at the West Ashley Barnes & Noble (1812 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.) on April 27 from 2 to 5 p.m.