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The Cypress House, Michael Koryta, Little Brown, $24.99.

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

I’ve heard Michael say that one of his favorite authors, next to Dennis Lehane, is Stephen King.  In my opinion King doesn’t have Koryta’s lovely, fluid prose or the emotional resonance he is able to find in his characters, something that is only deepening as he matures as a writer.  That’s by way of saying that this is a terrific, if terrifically creepy, book, as Koryta brings some paranormal elements to bear in his telling of a cracking good crime novel.

His central character, Arlen Wagner, is able to “see” death in men’s faces before it happens; their eye sockets turn to smoke, and in the right light, no flesh covers their bones.  It has two effects – a sense of isolating desperation for Arlen, and the fact that no-one believes him, which further isolates him as some sort of crackpot.  As he’s taking a train journey down to the Florida Keys with a gang of CCC workers (this novel is set during the depression, a strikingly familiar parallel to our present recession) he sees smoke in the eye sockets of every man on the train, and at the last stop before the Keys, he refuses to get back on.  He tries to talk everyone else out of it, but only a young man, Paul Brickhill, who is traveling with Arlen, listens to him.

Koryta has really become a master at pacing and suspense.  While the train full of doomed men head toward the Keys, he and Paul take a journey of a different kind.  Kortya leaves the train full of men hanging there in the back of your mind, but as you continue to read, you simply can’t forget about it, which heightens the general creepy atmosphere of the story.  Arlen and Paul accept a ride from a stranger and end up at the Cypress House, a beautiful, if isolated, spot on the Florida coast.

Arlen and Paul are slowly drawn into the story surrounding Cypress House, centering on the beautiful and mysterious Rebecca Cady; while she holds both men at arm’s length, she also holds them in thrall, almost despite herself.  As Korta peels back the layers of the plot – which involve extreme corruption in the tiny town Arlen and Paul find themselves in – there are dead bodies starting to pile up as well as the fact that Arlen again sees smoke in Paul’s eyes.

To say much more would be to give away too many elements of this well constructed story, which Koryta makes much stronger by making Arlen such an indelible and emotionally gripping character.  One of my favorite sentences in the book is “when all he’d known to be true had blown apart beneath the mortar shells of firsthand experience.”  As Arlen progresses through the story, those mortar shells are falling fast and furiously.  The ending is very moving; the characters in the novel have been so well filled out that by the end it’s not simple plot that has you in thrall, but Arlen, Paul and Rebecca. This is a wonderful novel.

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