Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta: a book review

those who wish me dead

If you could find that and hold it there within yourself, a candle of self-confidence against the darkness, you could accomplish great things. He knew this. He’d been through it.

Fourteen year old Jace Wilson witnesses a murder-for-hire near his home in Indiana. Witness protection will not help, for the system has been compromised. U.S. Marshals appear to be involved. At the suggestion of an executive bodyguard, Jace’s parents send him to the Wyoming-Montana border, to the wilderness survival school for troubled youth that Ethan Serbin, a retired military survival expert teaches. Once he is in the wilderness, away from computers and cell phones, Jace will be safe, right?

Of course not. Even as Jace, who has been fearful all his life, begins to learn about trusting himself, about building confidence as he learns to build a fire with flint and steel, the killers, Jack and Patrick Blackwell, relentless sociopathic brothers, are  close behind. To hide the murder of a local sherif, the Blackwells set a hillside on fire that burns out of control and into the mountains where Ethan and his young charges are camped.

Realizing they’ve found him, Jace slips away by himself. Killers and searchers, Ethan and his injured wife, Jace and Hannah, a guilt-ridden fire lookout whose lover died in a wildfire saving her, struggle to survive mountain thunder storms, each other, and a fire that grows to monster size as it races into the high country.

I’ve reviewed three of Koryta’s books, including So Cold the River (2010), perhaps my all time favorite thriller. This one is just as good; I devoured it in less than two days. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, the author serves up a near perfect blend of sympathetic protagonists, villains who are fascinating in their complexity, and tension that is finely tuned, neither too loose nor too tight. There really aren’t that many books that I literally cannot put down, but Those Who Wish Me Dead was one.

Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta

To the barricades! No, the other barricades.

Printing, ca. 1568.  Public domain.

Printing, ca. 1568. Public domain.

“Right now, bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the cross fire of an economic war. If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.” – James Patterson

I haven’t blogged about ebooks and independent publishing lately. Over the last few years, it’s become clear they are here to stay. Success breeds acceptance, and the “vanity press” stigma is gone. In olden days (ca. 2011), I found a kind of “blows against the empire” satisfaction in promoting ebooks, writing reviews, and encouraging Indie authors. The evil empire was big publishing. This was the time of the little guy.

I still like Indie authors, though the “righteous cause” fantasy is gone. Now suddenly, at least to a casual observer like me, the situation appears reversed, with Amazon in the role of bully-boy, and those same publishers (perhaps) fighting for their existence, and with them (maybe) hangs the fate of a lot of remaining brick and mortar stores.

I first learned of the Amazon-Hachette duel from Michael Koryta, a favorite action-adventure writer I follow on Facebook. On May 19, Koryta reported serious problems pre-ordering his new book, due out June 3, from Amazon. He said the situation goes far beyond the interests of one author, and provided some of the links posted below.

On May 29, USA Today quoted James Patterson as saying “the future of our literature is in danger.” Patterson says that “Amazon wants to control book buying, book selling and even book publishing,” and laments that federal anti-trust laws no longer have teeth.

Here are several editorials on the situation:

Amazon vs. Hachette: When Does Discouragement Become Misrepresentation? From the NY Times Blog

Amazon said to play hardball in book contract talks with publishing house Hachette The Washington Post

AAR Calls Out Amazon in Hachette Dispute, From a statement sent by Association of Authors Representatives to Amazon.

And if I was only going to read one account of this dispute, I’d chose this one by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords and early champion of ebooks, who believes in the vitality of a diverse writing and publishing world: Amazon’s Hachette Dispute Foreshadows What’s Next for Indie Authors

I’ve heard Coker speak on several occasions, and he’s a keen observer of a complicated landscape and future. His predictions on publishing tend to be right. In this post, he explains that the conflict centers on “agency pricing,” and who gets what profit margin for ebooks. Amazon is demanding a greater share. Here is what is at stake, says Coker:

“Books represent only one of hundreds of layers of icing on the cake of Amazon. Amazon can lose money on books while still operating a profitable business. Pure-play book retailers – Kobo and Barnes & Noble for example, must earn money from book sales. Unlike Amazon, they don’t have the financial resources to sell books at a loss forever…If Amazon can abolish agency pricing it will have the power to put its largest pure-play book retailing competitors out of business. This will make the publishers even more dependent upon Amazon, which further weakens their power.”

That’s the bad news. The really bad news, according to Coker, is that next they’ll come after Indie authors, just as they have in their audio book division, Audible. Gone are the 70% margins for authors that the agency model protects. Instead, exclusive Audible authors get 40% while the non-exclusive rate is 25%.

Coker winds up with with advice for independent authors, who, he says, are “the future of publishing.” It’s well worth reading the details in his article, but here are his main suggestions:

  1. Choose your partners carefully.
  2. Favor retail partners that support the agency model.
  3. Avoid exclusivity.
  4. Support a vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing retailers.

Remember the vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing book retailers? Though it is on the ropes, it’s not yet extinct. That’s worth thinking about and will be the subject of my next post.

The Prophet by Michael Koryta: a book review

Half the storefronts are empty in Chambers, Ohio.  Abandoned steel mills stand as silent monuments to a past that will never return.  Two brothers, Kent and Adam Austin, work in two of the biggest industries that remain in the town – high school football and bail bonds.  Their careers, like most everything else in their lives, were defined the night someone kidnapped and murdered their sister when the three of them were in high school.

The brothers have hardly spoken during the 22 years since their sister was taken.  Kent is a local hero, a winning football coach and a man of faith, who talks of God and family to murderers in his prison ministry.  Adam drinks too much, aches for revenge, and lives so close to the Chambers criminal element that differences often blur.

A man who calls himself “the prophet” slips into town.  His passion is murder and something more:  “Bring him the hopeful and he will leave them hopeless.  Bring him the strong and he will leave them broken.  Bring him the full and he will leave them empty.”  When a 17 year old girl is murdered, one whose faith Kent had tried to nurture, both brothers understand that that the killing is personal.  Someone has come to town to rip the old wound open and threaten them with new ones.

Michael Koryta (pronounced koo-ree-ta) decided he wanted to be a crime novelist at the age of 16.  While still in high school he interned with a private detective.  His first  novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye (2004) won the St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize before he was 21.  He had four more crime novels under his belt when he took a stunning turn by injecting supernatural elements into his thriller, So Cold the River (2010), which I reviewed here  He followed this up with two more books in the same vein, The Cypress House and The Ridge in 2011.

The Prophet has no overt ghosts, though people are haunted, and Adam regularly talks with his dead sister. The prophet is flesh and blood, but his menace lurks in every shadow.  The “un-natural” and the “super-natural” are so “natural” in Michael Koryta’s novels that his evil terrifies more than it does in most horror stories.  We never know much about the killer, but we do see, in his memory, his methodical method of stalking and killing a bird when he was 11.  That’s enough to make him more chilling than Count Dracula.

In crossing genre boundaries at will, Koryta’s new book delves deeper into the 21st century human condition than mystery and horror novels usually do.  A chill wind blows through this rust belt town, under gray and threatening skies, as well meaning men and women find redemption and renewal elusive – and yet, heroism, loyalty, faith, and family all matter.  As the high school football players learn, you get back on your feet and back into the line because there is nothing else you can do.

There are very, very few authors whose books I will buy they day they come out.  There are few books these days that I find I cannot put down.  Once again, Michael Koryta did not disappoint.  I downloaded The Prophet the morning it came on line and put everything else on hold until I had finished.  You may well find yourself doing the same.

Here is a recent interview in which the author discusses The Prophet:

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

Arlen Wagner, son of a West Virginia undertaker, knows about death, but nothing prepares him for that midnight in the Belleau Wood when he sees a squadron of skeletons marching toward his position and understands that every one of those men is going to die. In the years after the first world war, Arlen relies on whisky and manual labor to try to live with his unwanted “talent” for seeing death before it strikes.

In the summer of 1935, as Arlen and 19 year old Paul Brickhill, travel to a CCC camp in the Florida Keys, everyone on the train suddenly appears as a dead man. At the next stop, only Paul heeds Arlen’s warning to wait for the next train, and only Paul survives.

After that, things get strange…

That comment is not just meant to be facetious but points to one of the tactics Koryta uses to weave supernatural elements into his tale in a seamless fashion that is too often missing from the “urban fantasy” sub-genre that I once enjoyed but which soon became predictable.  Koryta is a master of mood who plants the vision of dead men on a train among a wealth of ordinary details:  the ever present heat, the smell of unwashed bodies, the cigarette smoke, the card games, and Arlen’s surreptitious sips from his flask.  In the next moment, he can make a simple walk down an empty road in the dark of the tropical night burst with menace.

He delivers on the promise of menace – and secrets.  Everyone has secrets – layers of them.

Arlen and Paul catch a ride with a man who takes them to The Cypress House, a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere, owned by a stunningly beautiful woman.  A few minutes after their arrival, the man who gave them a ride tries to slip away, but is incinerated when a bomb explodes in his car.  Why?  Why are Arlen and Paul arrested for the crime?  What secrets hide in the Cypress House – cypress house – another name for a coffin, Arlen remembers his father saying.  The very best kind of coffin, the coffin of choice for ancient kings and for popes.  Arlen’s father, who claimed he could talk to the dead.  He was insane – wasn’t he?

Michael Koryta, author of five mystery novels, charted a new direction by introducing supernatural elements into So Cold the River, which I praised on this blog last summer.  The Cypress House just came out.  Like its predecessor, this is one of those rare books I could not put down.

More on, “So Cold the River”

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

It is rare and delightful to find a book I hate to see end.  It is rarer to find a creepy book I hate to see end, and this is the first time ever I have hated to see a story end when the most compelling character is the villain.

Campbell Bradford, the villain of Michael Koryta’s,  So Cold the River, is no ordinary bad guy; he not just a bad man, he is evil. This important distinction is made by eighty-something, Edgar Hastings.  “He [Bradford] put a chill in your heart. My parents saw it; hell, everybody saw it. The man was evil.” The only fictional villain I can think of in his class – as evil and fascinating – is Hannibal Leckter in Silence of the Lambs

The evil Campbell Bradford is not the ninety-five year old Campbell Bradford who freaks out when hero, Eric Shaw, shows him a bottle of haunted “Pluto Water.”  This faux Bradford whispers, “So Cold the River,” and dies a short time later, sending Eric, a failed Hollywood filmmaker, to West Baden, Indiana, to learn the story of Bradford, Pluto water, and the newly restored West Baden hotel, (which actually exists), a once famous spa that was the domain of presidents, prize fighters, royalty, and gangsters.

The West Baden Hotel

The evil Campbell Bradford is a ghost, a very malevolent ghost, who possesses his great-great-grandson, Josiah, and later tries to possess Eric.  Bradford’s era is the roaring twenties, but his voice and tone suggest an earlier time.  Perhaps it is his fictional distance, the sepia toned feel of the old west that surrounds this villain, that works like the glass that allows us to watch a cobra in a zoo with an equal degree of fascination.  Imagine the Clint Eastwood of the sphagetti westerns as an angry psychopath, ready to sacrifice anything and anyone for his ambitions.  The ambitions of Campbell Bradford’s ghost drive the story.

“Look for the artifacts of their ambitions.”  That is Eric Shaw’s philosophy of documentary filmmaking, announced at the opening of the book.  The artifacts of Bradford’s ambitions are dead people. In the end, the mysterious Pluto Water, which carried Bradford’s spirit back to West Baden, allows Eric to survive his onslaught to tell the tale.

But Eric stops short of trying to unravel the whole story.  He will not seek the honey-flavored spring where Bradford lost his life.  Is the spirit really gone? Apparently. And yet, as Anne McKinney, who has devoted her life to watching the weather and waiting for the big storm cautions, “You can’t be sure what hides behind the wind.”

Sequeul anyone? I will definately read it if it comes.