Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Best Book I've Read All Year!

I missed John Hart’s debut novel, but I now have it ordered. That’s because his Edgar Award winning second novel, Down River is – hands down – the best book I’ve read this year. I picked up the paperback edition last night and sat nailed to my chair until I’d followed the protagonist through a mire of mystery and misery, till I’d solved the last puzzle, and until I’d turned the last page.

On the surface, Down River appears to be an unassuming tale with a relatively small cast of characters that even conveys a somewhat familiar tale. Told in first-person, the novel draws the reader into a steely grip that refuses to let go. The world isn’t at risk. Millions of people aren’t going to die. But Hart makes you care so much about young Adam Chase (and maybe even doubt him a little from time to time), that I’m betting no one else can step away from that book any easier than I could.

Five years ago, twenty-three year old Adam got acquitted of a heinous crime. He was accused of murdering a man about his age, though no one really knew why he did it. However, the key to the case was his stepmother’s testimony that she saw him coming home that night covered in blood. He was arrested and charged based on that testimony.

Although Adam protests his innocence, he doesn’t tell the readers everything either. In fact, he turns out to be less likeable and more violence-prone than I figured he would be by the end of Chapter 1. I understood why he did what he did, but I know that he didn’t have to take the action that he did.

At times, I didn’t quite know what to make of young Adam. He claims to have come back home because his lifelong friend Danny Faith called him and asked for help. However, I wasn’t made privy to that conversation, and suspicions started to build because there was a lot of his past – especially the last five years – that Adam doesn’t talk about. Nor does he want to talk to anyone else about it.

I’ve been fooled by first-person characters before, so I resolved to keep a careful eye on Adam. In the novel, he can’t help but keep meeting trouble head-on.

The relationship with his father is incredibly strained because his father had to choose between believing his wife (Adam’s stepmother) or Adam. The choice was made. Even after his acquittal, Adam found no mercy at home. He moved away to New York.

He also left behind a young lover, a woman he was supposed to marry that is now a police detective. She wears her feelings out in the open, the same way she wears her badge. She doesn’t cut Adam any slack, and I couldn’t blame her for it.

Drawn back to his hometown to find Danny, Adam is surprised when no one knows where he is. The mystery deepens and the stakes grow even higher when Adam discovers that investors want to build a nuclear power plant in town. Land prices skyrocket and every poverty-stricken family in the area is certain they’re about the strike it rich.

Except that Adam’s dad is holding up the deal. Not only does he not want to sell the land that the developers want, but he’s got the primary piece the deal hinges on. No one can move forward without his agreement. And he’s not giving it.

With all the pressure from inside the family and inside the community, Adam’s stay in town isn’t pleasant. Part of him came back to help Danny, but there’s another part that admits he’s come back to set the record straight and see if he can return.

I loved all this backstory and setup. It sounds like a lot, but Hart weaves everything together to quickly and effortlessly with simple and elegant prose that readers won’t notice how much information they’re getting until they’re deep inside Adam’s skin. By that time, it’s too late. Hart will have staked out his latest victims.

Hart knows the people of the region he writes about too. The characters are full and natural, with enough individualism that they come to life on the pages. Everyone has their own agenda, and Hart establishes all of that with a few simple brushstrokes as he works on his novelist’s canvas. The dialogue is rich and easy to absorb, and it sounds natural to the mental ear.

His descriptions of the natural world, of the forests and river, and the lifestyles of the characters make everything come to life. Mental movies kept playing through my mind. Yet with all of this, Hart still manages to push his story along on a bored-out V-8 engine that demands careful attention.

Danger lurks on every page, but so do the mysteries and secrets. Adam has to go the distance to figure out everything that’s going on, and Hart plays fairly with the mystery readers: all the clues are there, in plain sight. I figured everything out just ahead of the story’s climax, which is absolutely the best place a mystery reader and put the puzzles together.

I sat engrossed in this novel for hours, and when I was finished, I wished I had another book just like it that I could dive right into. That’s the sign of a great writer and a great story. Now I’m anxiously awaiting The King of Lies and will pre-order his third novel as soon as it lists on Amazon.

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