Does Your Mother Know

It is so wonderful to sleep in your own bed after being away for almost a week. I don’t sleep well anywhere other than my bed, no matter how tired I am, and so last night when I tumbled into my own bed for the first time since the previous Sunday night, I was asleep almost the moment I hit the pillow and slept deeply and well. I feel very well rested this morning, if a little disoriented from traveling, which is always a good thing. And the new car is a rock star.

I have the day off from work today, so I can decompress and run errands and get everything around here back under control; jumping back into the day job today would have been a mistake and I would have been tired the rest of the week, which is never optimum. The house needs tidying and there’s laundry to do as well; and at some point I am retiring to my easy chair in order to finish reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. I’d thought I’d be able to finish it this past weekend in Birmingham, but alas–we were all having so much fun I wound up getting back to my room too late to spend some time reading. Thank you to Margaret Fenton and Tammy Lynn for organizing a wonderful books weekend to support two libraries, and thanks to the engaged audience of readers who showed up in both cities. I got to hang out and get to know some acquaintances better, some quality time with good friends, made some new ones, had a lot of laughs, went to visit the Vulcan statue in Birmingham, AND SOLD ALL OF MY BOOKS. Yay! I also feel very energized about writing again, and I (of course) came up with an idea for a new series while there.

I call that a win.

One of the many books I read last week was Last Words by Michael Koryta. I had an ARC from a few years ago (thanks Erin!) that I had not read, and so I decided to take it along with me on the trip to read. I’ve been a huge fan since I read So Cold the River a few years back, and his Those Who Wish Me Dead was one of my absolute favorites books of the year a couple of years ago. He is one of those writers whose books I parcel out to read because I don’t want to be out of new Koryta books, you know? I never want to think, “I’ve read all of his books and will have to wait for him to write a new one”.

But Last Words reminded me again of how great a writer he is, and I am going to have to resist reading everything he’s written over the next few weeks. I may allow myself another, though.

The last words he said to her: “Don’t embarrass me with this shit.”

In later days, months, and years, he will tell everyone who asks, and some who do not, that the last words from his lips to her ears were “I love you.” Sometimes, during sleepless nights, he can almost convince himself that it is true.

But as they walked out of their building and into the harsh Florida sun that September afternoon, Mark Novak didn’t even look his wife in the eye. They were moving fast even though neither of them was running late. It was the way you walked when you were eager to get away from someone.

Great beginning, right? Pulls you right into the story.

Mark Novak is the our main character, but there’s also another point of view character, Ridley Barnes. Ridley isn’t a reliable narrator (it is a third person point of view novel, but the point of view of both characters is so sharp and strong it may as well be first person). Mark and his wife worked for Innocence Incorporated, a non-profit legal firm that investigates death row cases to prove the innocence of the convicted (a not-so-well disguised fictional rendition of The Innocence Project). His wife was an attorney, Mark is an investigator. When they separated that hot summer day, she was off to interview a psychic who’d contacted them about one of their cases; he thought it was a waste of time and they argued about her going. SHe went off to the interview and he headed for the beach house they’d rented for a vacation…and time passes and she never shows up. Koryta does an excellent job of walking the reader through the stages of this sort of thing: the annoyance that she’s late; the anger because he hadn’t wanted her to go in the first place; and finally, worry and fear that something has happened. Something did happen: eventually, state troopers show up to let him know that her car was found in a ditch and she was dead; shot in the head.

Flash forward a couple of years, and Michael is still reeling from his wife’s death, and has done some things that have put his job in jeopardy. His boss has sent him up to Indiana to look into a murder case where there was no conviction or even a trial; Ridley Barnes was the chief suspect in the death, but there was never enough evidence against him for a trial or even an arrest. Barnes has written to them, and wants them to look into the case; to prove once and for all whether he did or did not commit the murder.

A young girl and her boyfriend had gone into the Trapdoor Cave and gotten separated. After days of searching, Barnes–who was an expert caver and an expert on the mine–separated off from the search party and eventually came out carrying her dead body. Michael is convinced the case is a waste of time–and it’s winter in Indiana. But once he gets to the small town and starts asking questions, strange things start happening, and what he remembers from his first day of questioning people is completely different from other people who witnessed the events report back. Has Michael lost his mind, or is everyone in the town part of a conspiracy to make him look crazy? And Barnes himself, who claims he doesn’t remember what happened down in the cave when he found the girl, often goes into the cave (or others in the area) to get away from people and calm himself. He believes that the cave is sentient and speaks to him; and there’s also a ‘dark man’ down there.

Two of my biggest fears are the dark and tight spaces (I have severe claustrophobia), and there are scenes when Barnes is working his way through the cave where I literally got so creeped out I had to put the book down, from the descriptions of the dark and the tight spaces. Barnes also has to get back into the cave with another search party when Michael is kidnapped and left alone in the cave in his underwear, in the cold and the tight and the dark with no idea where he is. That entire sequence is so chilling I thought I would have nightmares.

But as the book rushes along to its final solution, the pacing is exceptional, the writing vivid and exceptional, and the characterizations strong and great; reminding me again why Michael Koryta is one of my favorite writers. His most recent books is a sequel to Last Words, and I am really looking forward to getting into it–but I am resisting temptation as I have already selected the next book I am going to read.

Highly recommended.

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