Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: 'Last Words' by Michael Koryta

Mark Novak, an investigator for a firm of Florida-based lawyers who are dedicated to freeing wrongly accused death-row inmates, has never forgiven himself for speaking harshly to his wife, Lauren, in a moment of pique. At the time, he did not know that he would never have the chance to atone for his thoughtless "last words." More than a year later, Novak, is in danger of losing his job because of his erratic and reckless behavior.

His boss dispatches Mark to the frigid town of Garrison, Indiana, to look into the unsolved murder of Sarah Jean Martin, a seventeen-year-old girl who died in a system of caves known as the Trapdoor ten years earlier. Ridley Barnes, an expert caver, brought Sarah to the surface after she went missing, but he was not charged in her slaying. There was no hard evidence proving that he committed the crime, and he claims that he does not remember what happened. Still, Barnes's suspicious neighbors believe that he is guilty and they have treated him like a pariah ever since he recovered Sarah's dead body.

When Mark starts asking too many questions about the circumstances surrounding Sarah's death, bad things happen. He encounters hostility and lies from almost everyone he meets. After being attacked physically, one would think that he would quickly return home. Instead, Novak decides to see his mission through to the end. He hopes that by avenging Sarah's slaying, he will earn redemption for having failed his late wife.

Koryta is a skilled storyteller who uses setting effectively. The enormous cave in "Last Words" is a creepy, twisting, and dangerous place that harbor dark, mysterious, and malevolent forces. We get a feel for the danger and difficulty involved in exploring maze-like underground passages, a venture that can prove fatal for the uninitiated. The characters include a sheriff who urges Mark to leave as quickly as possible; the daughter of a wealthy landowner; a sensitive and compassionate hypnotist; the aforementioned Ridley, who believes that the Trapdoor is a living entity; and Mark's increasingly impatient superior, who is weary of bailing his employee out of trouble.

Although, at over four hundred pages, the book is too long, the descriptive writing is superior, Mark's plight is involving, and Koryta keeps us on tenterhooks for much of the narrative. Therefore, it is disappointing that the author wraps up his novel so unsatisfyingly. The arduous journey that takes place both above and below the earth ends with a lengthy explanation that is muddled and implausible. The pedestrian climax is unworthy of a tale that promised so much more.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right

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