THE CYPRESS HOUSE by Michael Koryta

Book Quote:

“This was a dangerous game. Wasn’t as simple as talking. There was more to it than that, and what Tolliver had said had been the truth – the dead weren’t required to help him.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett  (JAN 24, 2011)

In Koryta’s latest thriller – noir with a twist of the supernatural – it’s late summer 1935 and a group of hard-bitten WWI veterans and one talented 19-year-old are headed for the Florida Keys to build a highway bridge.

“They’d been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.” Wagner, a loner who’s taken the kid, Paul Brickhill, under his wing, developed a chilling battlefield talent during the war. He could look at living men and see death steal over them. “He could see skulls shining in the pale moonlight where faces belonged, hands of white bone clutching rifle stocks.”

He found he could save some too, change the course of their fate. Not all, not even many; but some. So when he looks around and sees that every last man on the train, including young Paul, is about to die, he tries to convince them to get off at the next stop. But it’s the middle of nowhere in backwoods Florida and these hungry men aren’t about to fall for some superstitious claptrap. He and Paul, a budding and natural engineer, are the only ones who stay behind and as they head out into the dark, “the summer night pressed down on them like a pair of strong hands, made each step feel like ten.”

They finally end up at an oddly deserted fishing resort – The Cypress House – presided over by a woman, Rebecca Cady, who could have stepped right out of a James M. Cain novel: “Beautiful, yes. The sort of gorgeous that haunted men, chased them over oceans and never left their minds, not even when they wanted a respite. But was she trustworthy? No. Arlen was sure of that.”

Paul, however, is smitten and even after a punishing run-in with the corrupt local sheriff, he’s determined to stick around and use his skills to make her life easier. His determination only grows after a powerful hurricane takes out the Cypress House generator as well as its boathouse and dock.

“The three of them went out onto the front porch once, with the building offering shelter between them and the wind, and took in the yard. Everything was awash with water, the sea moving all around them, as if they stood aboard a ship rather than a porch.”

This is the 1935 hurricane that destroyed the Florida Keys railroad, killed hundreds and put paid to any notion of building a Keys highway for many years to come. Wagner’s death vision has been fulfilled – all the men who were on the train were killed in the hurricane. And Wagner is becoming increasingly sure that the longer they stay at The Cypress House, the more they tempt the same fate, even as he finds his eyes – and thoughts – lingering longer on Rebecca Cady. The men who run things in this corrupt little backwater make their own law, and their hold over Cady is as absolute as it is mysterious. To save Paul, Wagner has some hard choices ahead.

Koryta keeps his dialog hard-edged. The noir atmosphere drips with steamy Gulf Coast humidity, and crackles with human chemistry. The supernatural element heightens the eerie feel while the story’s foundations go deep into the real hopelessness of the Depression. Sentence by sentence the prose draws the reader into the story but it all sags a bit in the middle. One of the strengths of classic noir is brevity, and that’s just not possible these days. People like their thrillers long and a certain amount of padding is all but inevitable it seems.

Nevertheless, Koryta builds to a tense, violent climax that makes full use of the swampy Florida setting and its backwoods denizens, as well as all of Wagner’s ingenuity and spooky sense.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 75 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company (January 24, 2011)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Michael Koryta
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 24, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Florida, Mystery/Suspense, Noir, Thriller/Spy/Caper

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