Sunday, July 04, 2010

Unholy Water

You might remember my particularly glowing review of reporter-turned-novelist Michael Koryta’s Envy the Night, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery in 2008. “You can’t always tell a book by its cover blurbs,” I wrote back then, “but the ones decorating Envy the Night bear the crystal ring of truth and admiration. Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos are not often generous to a fault, but their recommendations of Koryta’s first standalone thriller--after three books in his excellent series about Cleveland private eye Lincoln Perry--might just make you rush out to obtain it, and then lock yourself in a room until you finish reading the thing.”

Koryta’s Perry books were splendid slices of Midwestern noir. And having just finished reading his new non-series novel, So Cold the River (Little, Brown), I’m aglow once more with admiration for this young author.

Koryta has ventured into Stephen King territory this time out, and seems to have been heavily influenced by The Shining. But his book is an homage, not a rip-off. Cinematographer Eric Shaw is back home in Chicago after a disappointing stint in Hollywood, now making ends meet by shooting videos of weddings and parties. But a rich client offers him $20,000 to travel to the resort town of West Baden, Indiana (just down the road from Larry Byrd’s hometown of French Lick), the childhood home of her dying father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, and shoot a video history of his life. She gives Shaw an old bottle of Pluto Water, the once-famous mineral water of West Baden. The bottle is mysteriously cold and smells almost too bad to drink. But Shaw--obviously forgetting the Alice in Wonderland message “Drink Me,” which meant just the opposite--takes a swig, and his troubles begin: headaches, weird visions from some forgotten past, the whole ball of wacko characters and events that make him start to doubt his sanity. A sudden flurry of leaves stirred by the wind changes into the roar of a train and then to the haunting chords of a violin. And, like The Shining, So Cold the River offers a wonderful old hotel as its centerpiece.
“So cold,” says the dying old man to Eric on their first meeting.

“What was?”

“The river.”

“What river are we talking about?”

Eric was staring into the man’s face and unable to believe that any drama school on earth had ever produced a talent like this. He wasn’t acting. He was lost in some frozen memory. One that terrified him.
Toward the end of the book, an old weather watcher named Anne McKinney tells Shaw, “You’re too worried about figuring out what you can believe about all off this, and then figuring out how to control it. That’s how most people approach their lives. Way I feel, though, after a lot of years of living? Not much of what matters in the world is under your control. ... So stop trying to control this, and start listening to what it’s telling you.”

Excellent advice, in an equally excellent work tinged with supernatural elements. And judging by a preview of his next book, The Cypress House, which was included in my Kindle version of So Cold the River, Koryta has only begun to experiment with ghost stories.

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