Rich Tommaso’s Dry County has a regular-guy protagonist, Lou Rossi, who plays at being a detective. It’s hard to blame him for this bit of make-believe after he stumbles into what anybody would recognize as the start of a mystery. He meets a pretty girl, Janet Laughton, and then only a few days later she disappears, followed by a note that reads, “Do not call the police or she dies.” He spends the rest of the book trying to track her down with the skillset and street-smarts that would actually be available to him as a young cartoonist and movie critic in the year 1990 - which is to say not much. He bumbles around, recruits some friends to stake out her ex-boyfriends, and runs a contest in his newspaper comic strip to try and send her messages. The most daring he gets is when he climbs through a window and looks around in someone’s house for her, thinking she may be inside being held prisoner, but since she’s not there he leaves the way he came in.
The things Rossi does to find her are far-fetched and don’t get him much closer to the truth of what happened, but over the course of the “investigation”, he begins getting his life together. He takes on additional responsibilities at work, starts dressing better, and tidies up his apartment. This is an improvement from his pasttimes at the start of the book where he mostly sat around drinking beer in front of the TV. The missing girl, Laughton, serves as a catalyst for his character arc even though she isn’t even much of a character in the story herself. He barely knows her, and just kissed her the one time. He never does end up seeing her again either, although he does finally get a note from her letting him know she’s fine and has moved home to Texas. Because of the type of character Rossi is, Laughton's limited role in the story, and the change that she affects in him she calls to mind the type of girlfriend who exists in a narrative as a plot device for the male protagonist. However Tommaso takes it to an extreme by erasing her personhood completely, making her an entirely missing character. Doing this Tommaso draws a parallel between a love interest who exists to drive a male protaganist's character arc and a hardboiled detective's search for a missing girl. When Rossi reads the note from Laughton saying she had gone home to Texas and please not to bother looking her up it reads as if she decided that if she wasn't going to matter to the story, she wasn’t going to bother sticking around for it.
Dry County is written in the tenor of Florida crime fiction. The nothing-connects-but-everything-coincides style popularized by Dan Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, and Dave Barry where there is no repression or dark secrets, just lunatics running around until time runs out. The story is filled with red herrings and dead ends. Our protagonist is run off the road a couple of times by a brown van marked with a Christian cross, but it ends up that these guys were unconnected to the larger plot entirely and after the second time it happens they are never heard from again. There is a confluence of events that don't add up to anything in particular and nobody gets to be anything close to a hero.
Lou Rossi is a painfully real, awkward 20-something whose head is filled with movies and romantic notions of himself. He is fleshed out with small character details that make him come across as socially awkward but endearing. One striking moment in particular is when he finally resigns from his job and offers his boss his left hand to shake and then runs out of the office at a full sprint. Tommaso has suggested in interviews that Lou Rossi was originally intended to be the star in an ongoing series where he moved around the country, scratching out a meager existence and getting involved with various mysteries along the way. But I found that the random and disjointed nature specific to Florida crime makes for an especially good fit with the protagonist’s good-natured self-involvement and lack of any real mystery solving skills.