Thomas Cook is one of the underappreciated treasures of American crime fiction. Although an Edgar winner in 1997 for The Chatham School Affair, he’s never achieved the popularity he deserves, maybe because his books are atmospheric, psychologically oriented stand-alones, with more in common with the works of Brits like Barbara Vine and Minette Walters than that of U.S. series writers like Sue Grafton or Michael Connelly.
Cook’s latest, Into the Web, is a wonderful example of his craft, a beautifully written tale of memory, murder and guilt which also features a clever, surprising, yet thoroughly plausible plot. In it Roy Slater returns from California to Kingdom County, the impoverished Appalachian community that he grew up in and couldn’t wait to get out of, to nurse his brutal father through his final illness. Although Roy, a bookish teacher, now leads a life completely different from his hardscrabble boyhood, he’s never really escaped Kingdom County or the bloody crime that suddenly erupted there. Once home his thoughts are inevitably drawn back to the double homicide his brother allegedly committed years ago, and as he fumblingly begins his own investigation, long hidden secrets are slowly and tantalizingly revealed, secrets that, although old, are far from dead, and which have deadly implications for the present.
Along with spellbinding suspense, Into the Web features Cook’s lyric prose as well as a masterful depiction of a place where poverty makes social distinctions ever more pronounced and class warfare even more violent. Without a single wasted or pretentious word Cook manages to entertain while at the same time engaging larger themes of love, corruption and death, daring to be – gasp – profound in a genre too easily satisfied with the merely escapist.
His previous book Moon Over Manhattan was a “comic thriller” written with (or for) talk show host Larry King, presumably for the bucks, and Into the Web is a paperback original, which makes me a little anxious about Cook’s commercial fortunes in today’s avaricious publishing climate. So I implore you, if you like intelligent, well written crime fiction buy and read Into the Web, both for Thomas Cook’s profit and your own.