New from Heller

I never bypass the chance to read a novel by Peter Heller. I love that I never know what to expect—each book is so different from the one before, but all are gripping; his prose is both spare and lush in its evocations; and on top of that, the guy can tell a story. Once having read both The Painter and The Dog Stars, I would have been hard pressed to choose a favorite between them, and although I liked Celine less, it was, again, such a departure from previous works that both its characters and its mystery intrigued me.

theriverHis new book, The River, is similarly powerful. The sense of uneasiness evoked from the very first page builds to a cascade of climactic moments, each overpowering the previous one, until you wash into the ebb tide of the epilogue and realize you’ve been holding your breath for a good part of the book.

Two college friends, Dartmouth classmates Jack and Wynn, are taking a much-dreamed-of trip together, setting aside a few weeks to canoe a series of lakes into a northern-flowing river up into Canada. Jack, who was raised on a ranch in Colorado, is the more experienced of the two at camping and hunting, but Wynn, a gentle giant from rural Vermont, has his share of skills. They plan a leisurely trip of trout fishing, blueberry picking, and a slow trek through a route that alternates between smooth, flat water idyllic for paddling and rapids that must either be run or portaged around.

All of this changes one afternoon halfway through the trip, when the two climb a hill and see the glow of a massive forest fire about 25 miles off but clearly headed directly across their path. The lakes up until now have been completely empty of humans, and the two boys have enjoyed the cry of the loons and the spectacle of moose, bear, and other wildlife, but as they paddle upstream with new urgency, they encounter first a pair of men, drunk on whiskey and lolling in their campsite with no awareness of their peril, and then, as fog drops down and obscures the shore, they hear the voices of a man and woman, arguing passionately, their voices bouncing across the water. They warn the men about the fire, but can’t catch a glimpse of the contentious couple, and paddle on to their next campsite.

The next day, burdened with a sense of guilt for not searching harder, Jack and Wynn agree to turn back and warn the couple, if they can be found. This turns out to be a fateful decision that burdens them for the rest of their trip with unexpected responsibilities, dangers, and crises over and above the dreaded wildfire, which approaches ever closer.

Heller always delivers on atmosphere, and even if you have never camped out, paddled a canoe, or caught a fish, you are right there with his characters on the bank of the lakes and river, looking at the stars, watching the raptors in their nests at the tops of the tallest trees, or reeling in a line with a brown trout on the hook. The reader also gets quickly inside the heads of both protagonists, as well as tapping into the quiet and solid friendship between the two, which nonetheless becomes strained as events ramp up to catastrophe and their differing temperaments emerge.

As with his other books, I read this one in a day and a half, only deterred from one continuous sit-down by a traitorously depleted battery in my Kindle. In an interview for Bookpage, Heller said that he writes…

“…a thousand words a day, every day, and I always stop in the middle of a scene or a compelling train of thought. Most writers I know write through a scene. But if you think about it, that’s stopping at a transition, a double-return, white space. That’s what you face the next morning; it’s almost like starting the book fresh. If you stop in the middle, you can’t wait to continue the next day.”

That same sense of urgency pervades me as I read any of his books.

 

Segue

If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.

That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.

If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.

So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”

Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.

For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.

There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?

The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.

It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.

Murder and football

Last week, I was checking for a book on bookoutlet.com, a discount site that provided me with many budget-saving deals during my 10 years as a teen librarian running three book clubs on a budget. If you have never been there, then beware; you can spend an awful lot of money while “saving” it. Only books that have been remaindered appear for sale, but that includes a surprising number of mainstream authors and excellent reads, and you can buy most of them for between $2.79 and $6.49 apiece. They do have a “remaindered” dot or slash on the bottom or top of their pages, but if you aren’t one of those fussy people whose personally owned books have to be absolutely pristine, then you can greatly expand your collection for not a lot of money. The only tricky part is that shipping is high, so in order to get it for free, you have to spend $35 or more. But if you regularly go on Amazon to buy new fiction at $25 for one hardcover, then you won’t find that difficult; and if you’re buying in bulk for a book club, this is a website you need!

prophetAnyway, I was shopping there, and attempting to buy everything I wanted or “needed” at once so as to obtain the free shipping, so I ended up adding in a book by Michael Koryta. I had never read him before, but he is “blurbed” by the likes of Michael Connelly, so I decided he was worth a try. I settled on the particular book I bought—The Prophet—because it was a stand-alone, and because it sounded more straight-up mystery/thriller than the others, which apparently harbor some horror tendencies. Since I am squeamish about horror, I turned away from those, although I have subsequently discovered from other reviewers on Goodreads that his supernatural twists are “suspenseful without being gory enough or scary enough to fall into the horror category.”

The Prophet is about two brothers whose lives have been shaped by the murder of their sister. When all three were in high school, the eldest, Marie, walked home alone one twilight, and was kidnapped and killed. Either of the brothers could have escorted her home, but one was wrapped up in football while the other had recently fallen in love, and both shirked the responsibility to pursue their own goals, reasoning that not much could happen in five blocks. Both spent their lives regretting that decision.

It’s 10 years later, and although Kent has moved on, becoming the town’s beloved head coach of the competitive high school football team, Adam continues to live in the family home with an untouched bedroom shrine to his sister. Adam is a bail bondsman, and is a hard-drinking risk-taker who is haunted by that one lapse of judgment. The brothers became alienated over the family tragedy, and haven’t spoken in years despite continuing to live in this small, depressed Ohio steel town.

Into both their lives comes a girl looking for a reunion with her father, a paroled criminal. She is connected tangentially to both brothers—she has hired Adam to get her an address for her dad, and it turns out she’s also the girlfriend of Kent’s wide receiver. So when she goes missing and then turns up dead, it throws both of them directly back into their mindset after Marie’s death. When the crime turns out to be further connected with the brothers, they must put their differences aside and work together to find the killer.

In some ways this was a beautifully balanced thriller: I liked the juxtaposition of the two brothers, the one hardly distinguishable from the criminals and outlaws with whom he does business as a bail bondsman, the other an upstanding member of the community, deeply, overtly religious, and the town’s best hope for a football championship that would brighten the lives of the many unemployed steel workers whose children play for his team. When a psychopath turns up in their town and begins to manipulate the both of them, their varied reactions are fascinating to watch. I enjoyed the way the mystery played out, and never guessed its resolution, being as shocked at various circumstances as were Kent and Adam (and the police).

This is also a book full of football, and I appreciated that much less. I have never been a fan of the sport, and a large percentage of the book is spent following both the team itself and the machinations in its head coach’s head as he tries to reconcile his belief that the game is merely a means to an end—a way to help these young people develop skills and opportunities—with his deep-down raging desire to win the state championship, just once in his career. Although the psychological aspects of the game to some extent mirrored the psychological aspects of the other things going on in town, I found myself becoming impatient with the minute details of practices, plays, and strategy.

So for those wondering whether to read The Prophet, I would say it’s a good thriller with a solid plot and some well-developed characters, but if you really love football, then that is what will carry you over the top to victory in your search for a good book.

I believe I will try one more of Koryta’s, not burdened by football, and see what I think.