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