Friday, July 1, 2016
Review: DOWN RIVER by John Hart
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
After being narrowly acquitted of a murder charge as a teenager, Adam Chase was hounded out of the only home he's ever known, exiled for a sin he did not commit. For five long years he disappeared into the faceless gray of New York City. Now he's back in Rowan County and nobody knows why...
Within hours of his return, Adan is beaten and accosted, confronted by his family and the women he still holds dear. No one knows what to make of Adam's return, but when bodies start turning up, the small town rises against him and Adam again finds himself embroiled in the fight of his life, not just to prove his own innocence, but to reclaim the only life he's ever wanted.
John Hart's sophomore novel is hearty Southern Gothic fare, lush and lyrical, seething with a sense of injustice, a barely controlled rage. At it's centre is Adam Chase, an angry young man with plenty of reason to be angry. He had a tough upbringing, then was falsely accused of murder as a teenager, then saw his father side with his stepmother, who testified for the prosecution, over his own son. Banished to New York City following his acquittal, Adam returns to his North Carolina roots following a cryptic phone call from an old friend. Despite the verdict, suspicions still swirl, and his hometown doesn't exactly welcome the prodigal son with open arms. The victim was a local football star, and many still think that Adam Chase got away with murder.
It certainly doesn't help that Adam's father is a lone holdout as local landowners look to cash in, wanting to sell their land at big profits for the construction of a nuclear power plant. Or that the ex-girlfriend he left behind is now a cop. Or that his friend who phoned him has disappeared.
When bodies start appearing, suspicion turns to the man the town thinks got away with murder.
Hart delivers a compelling tale that engages through its deep characterisation and spider-webbed character relationships as much as through plot twists or action. Hart has little need for ticking clocks or other genre shortcuts, instead the drama and thrills are organic, arising from the characters and their choices and mis-steps. There is plenty of action, and lots going on to keep the pages turning, all with a sense of depth, complexity, and authenticity. Hart's prose is lush and lyrical.
DOWN RIVER is a literary thriller of the highest order, but a caveat: it won't be for everyone.
Adam is at the heart of this tale, a troubled young man who can be irritating, selfish, violent, and have a skewed view of the world, even if understandably so. Told in the first person, we never know quite how much to believe what Adam's telling us, and how much he's hiding. For me, Hart beautifully struck this balance between flawed and fascinating, creating a character and narrative both powerful and page-turning. But for others, Adam may be too much for them to handle. He can be unlikable.
There's a definite Southern Gothic sensibility to DOWN RIVER. Set in rural North Carolina, Hart does a fine job evoking the natural and human landscapes of the area, bringing the people and place of his Rowan County world to vivid, grotesque life. It's a world of subtext and secrets, symbolism and allusion. Nearly everyone has something to hide. Life is messy, complicated, often dark.
Overall, Hart has crafted an excellent literary thriller that was well deserving of the Edgar Award. DOWN RIVER is a complex, rich tale full of nuance and depth in character, story, and theme.
Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for leading publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson