Little, Brown and Company, $26.00, 420 pages, ISBN 978-0316-12263-4
There ought to be a special word for novels that have more than one theme, more than one story arc, and a tricky, psychologically-twisted plot interwoven with numerous backstories blended together into a complex and genre-defying literary stew that you just can’t put down once you begin reading. Something like Mindaffectus-Mystery or Terribullistawickedus-Thriller, which would easily identify smash-mouth, twisted pulse-pounders like Last Words, by Michael Koryta that are a work of a virtuoso, master wordsmith. Oh, yeah . . . I liked it . . . a lot!
Markus Novak is an investigator for Innocence Inc., an anti-death penalty project based in St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s a pro-bono defense agency whose only purpose is to free unjustly convicted death row inmates and help them regain their lives. It’s a job he loves, almost as much as he loves his wife Lauren, who’s also an investigator at the same firm. Truth be told, Markus was so enamored of Lauren that he followed her to work there. And, surprise! He’s really good at it. But, on the day his life changes forever, when Lauren’s going to interview a spiritualist who claims to have vital information about a case they’re working, Markus, a man loaded with bad childhood memories says, “Don’t embarrass me with this s**t!!” A couple of hours later, Lauren is killed by an unknown assailant . . . and Markus is devastated. A year later, with the murder still unsolved, Markus reaches out to an inmate in prison, offering immediate cash for the name of her killer, with the promise of ten times that amount for the killers death. The news travels and Novak is all but banished, sent to the small southern Indiana town of Garrison, to look into a ten year old cold case. It’s the unsolved homicide of a seventeen year old girl, named Sarah Martin, whose body was found in a mysterious and geologically spectacular cavern known locally as Trapdoor. It’s the type of case Innocence Inc. would never accept, but while Novak’s job is hanging in the balance, he’s better off being out of town, as his boss tries to convince the board of directors not to fire him. That’s plot theme number one.
Theme number two unfolds in Garrison, Indiana. There, Markus is inexorably drawn into the unsolved murder of young Sarah. It’s a ten-year old cold case that everyone in town—including the sheriff—is convinced was committed by a local eccentric named Ridley Barnes. He’s a recluse, an expert cave explorer who was mapping Trapdoor before the tragedy, and he’s the man who carried Sarah Martin’s lifeless body back to the surface. Barnes can’t remember what happened as he wandered for days in the dark, lost without food or water or, worst of all, light, in the depths of the cavern as he searched for the lost girl. When he finally surfaces with Sarah’s body—Ridley doesn’t know if she was alive when he found her—and thinks he may have killed her. But he can’t remember . . . where he found her, or how they got out . . . and no one can contradict him. Now Ridley Barnes want to know—did he kill Sarah Martin? Maybe Markus Novak, despite his reluctance, can find the answer and maybe he’ll die trying!
Last Words is one of the most suspenseful, well-crafted and intricately plotted novels we’ve read in the twenty-first century. It will enthrall the reader from first to last page as it keeps everyone guessing . . . whodunnit?