Friday, January 25, 2008

Literary Mystery: John Hart, DOWN RIVER

The recent attention to Nordic Noir has brought some marvelous literary mysteries to light -- literary in the sense that the authors illuminate a landscape in meticulous and moving detail, and their characters move through inner weather that's as powerful as outer. Henning Mankell's grimly lovely series comes to mind, as well as Håkan Nesser's series with Inspector Van Veeteren.

Similarly paced explorations have come from U.S. writers S. J. Rozan (In This Rain), Alan Furst (Kingdom of Shadows), even Charles McCarry (The Secret Lovers).

Now John Hart, in his second lyrical novel, blends a literary eye for the South with a finely honed sense of plot and pace. DOWN RIVER came out in October to wide acclaim; although it's not a sequel to Hart's first book, The King of Lies, it walks the same ground in his dark and aching Rowan County.

... I know the feel of that river even now: the slow churn of red clay, the back eddies under cut banks, the secrets it whispered to the hard, pink granite of Rowan County. Everything that shaped me happened near that river. I lost my mother in sight of it, fell in love on its banks. I could smell it on th day my father drove me out. It was part of my soul, and I thought I'd lost it forever.

When Adam Chase abruptly returns to his home town of Salisbury, where his father still owns a wide stretch of farmland along the river, he's quickly attacked under the label "murderer" that he wears for a crime he hadn't committed -- but couldn't dispel. Every person he cares about either can't stand him or gets wounded all over again by Adam's return. His father, his friends, even the woman who wishes she didn't still love him are bleeding from what he's done. Law enforcement professionals set him up for more hurt, more punishment. It's not long before he's in the very prison where he'd served time before, trying to talk his family friend Dolf Shepherd out of confessing to yet another murder in town. No use.. it's a setup by the sheriff. Here's a taste of Chase's reaction after being forced to leave Dolf in the prison:

I went to Dolf's house; it was empty and dark. I stripped off wet clothes and flung myself down onto his couch. Thoughts churned through my mind; speculation, theories, despair. Fifteen miles away Dolf would be lying on a hard, narrow bunk. Probably awake. Probably afraid. The cancer would be chewing through him, looking for that last vital bit. How long until it took him? Six months? Two months? One? I had no idea. But when my mother died, and my father, for years, had been lost to me in mourning, it was Dolf Shepherd who made the difference. I could still feel the strength of that heavy hand on my shoulder. Long years. hard years. And it was Dolf Shepherd who got me through.

If he was going to die, it should be with sunlight on his face.

Violent, grieving, but with a frail chance at redemption and a determination to make things right: that's Adam Chase. And it's an equally good description of the Rowan County that Hunt has created, painting it under a hot sun and in a bone-chilling storm. If Adam Chase can get to bedrock truths, he may be able to face his future again -- maybe, maybe, maybe.

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