Review of “Cypress House” by Michael Koryta

I’m not sure why I picked this up, because it’s a combination of noir hard-boiled crime fiction (which I generally don’t like) and paranormal (or supernatural) (which I generally don’t like). But I did like this book.

What makes this book work, in my opinion, are two factors. One is the eminent likeability of the main character, Arlen, who encapsulates not only the popular female swoon-type of guy (quiet, moody, masculine, sexy, and honorable), but also the fact that the author treats the supernatural element as just one more feature of the environment: weird, but part of the plot scenery.

It’s 1935, and thirty-something Arlen Wagner and 19-year-old Paul Brickhill are traveling by train with a group of WWI veterans to the Florida Keys for jobs building a bridge to traverse the water. Arlen is somehow able to anticpate when a person is going to die: he can see their skeletons, and their eyes turn to smoke. When he recognizes the signs in all the men on the train, he knows he and his young protégé have to get off. (He tries to warn all them all, but only Paul will listen to him.) It turns out all the men are all killed down in the Keys in the famous Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 [in real life, one of the most intense hurricanes to make landfall in the United States in recorded history.]

Meanwhile, Arlen and Paul have hitched a ride, and end up riding out the storm at The Cypress House, an isolated hotel on the Gulf Coast, where no one is in residence except the manager: the young, beautiful, and mysterious Rebecca Cady. Paul is smitten, and insists that he and Arlen stay on after the hurricane passes to help Rebecca repair the damage. But the real damage, and recurring dangers, are only just beginning.

Discussion: Koryta’s excellent atmospherics make the swampy, croc- and snake-filled, tree-dense Gulf area into a convincingly sinister hiding place for some of the worst (but realistically drawn) evil people you ever wanted not to meet. Counterbalancing these villains Arlen and Paul would be ipso facto loveable in any event, but they deserve the reader’s affection on their own. In addition to their predilection for hard work, their enterprising natures, and a chivalry which necessitates bravery, Arlen exudes a smoldering sexiness and wary intelligence, and Paul is innocent and eager – like a happy puppy who doesn’t understand why everything isn’t quite right. In addition, their feelings toward each other are part of what makes this book so appealing.

Rebecca is the only character I wasn’t really taken with – the author didn’t convince me why all the men would be falling in love with her beyond the fact of her beauty (which, however – and admittedly, is enough for plenty of men).

Evaluation: This sultry, southern noir thriller has a little something for everyone: there is a bit of the gothic, some romance, some mystery, and some gritty, page-turning suspense. The author is starting to accumulate prizes, and I can understand why.

Rating: 3.8/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2011

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16 Responses

  1. well, I AM a fan of hard-boiled crime..and I can take a dash of the paranormal, so this sound right up my alley.
    And while I am not that fond of Florida (sorry, too flat, hot, humid..) I love it as a setting for books.

  2. YOU DON’T KNOW WHY YOU PICKED THIS BOOK UP? Well, hell, I hope maybe I had a small influence here. I would say that this is my favorite Koryta book, but all of them have good stuff to offer. I loved the nod to the hurricane that goes up in Florida’s history as the most deadly. I loved the Florida atmosphere (I feel like I have visited this fishing camp). And I loved Arlen. Those last 50 pages or so about gave me heart failure.

    • Yes, it’s true, but I like to pretend from time to time that I read things now on my own initiative (and yet, can’t even come up with a good explanation for that since almost everything I read now is blogger-instigated, and more specifically, amazingly often Sandy-instigated…)

  3. It’s funny that you mention that this is noir and paranormal because that would normally not interest me at all either but I have been wanting to read this for a while! I’m glad you enjoyed it and I really look forward to reading this!

  4. Ooh, I think I like noir detective fiction in theory but perhaps not in practice. I have The Maltese Falcon on my shelf but haven’t read it yet for precisely that reason. I am not sure if I’ll like it, even though I do really want to read it. I do like all the genre-crossing that’s happening these days. I am not a fan of paranormal fiction, but I love the possibility of mixing fantasy and mystery fiction together.

  5. Sandy does indeed love this book, and she has sung it’s praises many times to me before. I know I need to read this one, and do have a copy, but it’s a case of too many good books and not enough time, I think. I have been considering what to read for Halloween, and this will have to go on the short list. I love it when a book has such excellent ambiance. Great review, Jill!

  6. It does sound interesting. Knowing when people will die is a blessing and a curse, for sure. I know Sandy has mentioned this author before before you guys, I’ve not even come across him before.

  7. I don’t generally like paranormal either, but I do like it when Koryta writes it for some reason. It just seems to flow with his plots.

  8. I know, right? By all accounts, I shouldn’t like Koryta’s books, but I really do!

  9. I’m not a fan of crime fiction but this book sounds like it’s too good to pass up!

  10. I like a little paranormal mixed in with my mysteries. This one sounds really good!

  11. What I liked is how this book had two genres that you normally don’t care for but ended up liking in the end. Sounds like a possibility.

  12. Hard-boiled crime and paranormal in one book? I will have to see it to believe it. The story, as you’ve related it, does sound good – not spooky.

  13. I still haven’t tried this author, but would like to try some of the audio versions from the library.

  14. Sounds like I have been missing out on a really good author. I’ve never read any of his work and like you, Jill, I’m not too keen on paranormal or noir but your review makes me want to read this one.

  15. I’ve had this one on my list for awhile. Love the 3.85 designation :)

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