Thursday, February 10, 2011
My first experience with Michael Koryta was in reading "So Cold the River", a mystery thriller with a supernatural edge, all set in the town of French Lick, Indiana, at the historical West Baden Resort. I've actually stayed at this resort, and it is a one-in-a-million kind of place, where you instantly become hypnotized with it's charm and beauty. If you look out the corner of your eye, you feel that you might even catch a glimpse of a ghost. So reading this book was a unique experience.
Then I actually met Koryta at SIBA this past year, and was able to get a signed copy of his latest novel, "The Cypress House", which released on January 24th. Totally different setting, but again one I'm familiar with...Florida. Only this is 1935, during the most intense hurricane to make landfall in US history (I suspect most Floridians have heard about this one). If you have lived through a hurricane, your stomach probably just went knots, because it is a wholly terrifying experience. This is ready-made atmosphere, something it seems Koryta knows something about.
Synopsis: Arlen Wagner has a haunting gift. In the final hours of someone's life, Arlen does not see a breathing human, he sees a skeleton, and smoke where their eyes should be. And he sees a trainload of these skeletons as he and his buddy Paul are en route to assist in building a bridge in the Keys. (Little do they know, they are all traveling straight into the path of the most devastating hurricane in US history.) Arlen cannot convince the group to disembark, so he and Paul take off on their own, and hitch a ride with a man who takes them to The Cypress House.
The Cypress House is a seemingly forgotten fishing resort, settled on the ocean, and run by the withdrawn but beautiful Rebecca Cady. But bad things start to happen as soon as they arrive. Their mysterious driver goes up in flames inside his car. Arlen and Paul are taken in for questioning, and find themselves up against a crooked police officer and judge. And there is an ugly hurricane bearing down on them. As they stay to help Rebecca recover from the aftermath of the storm and rebuild Cypress House, it slowly dawns on them that all is not well in this corner of paradise. And this underlying evil could be the undoing of their friendship, the undoing of deeply buried secrets, and possibly the undoing of their lives.
My thoughts: I really had a good time with this one. It had everything going for it. The underlying theme of the deadly 1935 Labor Day Hurricane immediately set the stage for impending doom. You have the oppressive, sultry atmosphere of rural, coastal Florida. Koryta also has conjured up some really memorable, well-drawn characters that come alive on the page. Arlen is the epitome of an anti-hero...a swaggering ex-Marine who nips at his flask a little too often in order to escape some persistent ghosts. His young, innocent protege. The quiet and sexy damsel in distress with a story of her own. And some real backwater badasses that make Hitler look like a girl scout.
You know almost from the beginning that it is going to get down and dirty before it is all resolved, and all the reader has to do is hold on tight and enjoy the ride. Koryta doesn't hold back either. Blood is drawn, people die, body parts are severed, and victims hung up by their ankles. You will find yourself immersed in a mucky swamp, infested with a nest of angry water moccasins, and the dead who have a thing or two on their mind. It is wild and woolly and I enjoyed every minute of it, with my heart pounding until I'd turned the last page.
Don't let the supernatural slant deter you. At it's heart, this is a mystery thriller that is slathered with creepy, full of piss and vinegar, and Arlen's little "talents" are just the cherry on top that complete the package. In fact, I'd even say that the supernatural aspects made the story a better one, adding an additional level of complexity and offering a perspective that you don't get in most books.
4.5 out of 5 stars