Envy the Night, Michael Koryta, Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95
and Good People, Marcus Sakey, Dutton, $24.95.
Koryta and Sakey are two of the mystery world's up and coming talents. Young and starting out both their careers with a bang - Koryta winning the St. Martin's Private Eye Award for his first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, and Sakey being nominated for several awards for his first novel, The Blade Itself. Blade also has a movie deal attached. Several books in - Sakey managed to churn out 3 novels in 18 months or so - both men have reached a similar point in their writing and are approaching it in a similar manner. I don't mean the books are similar, except that they're both tightly written, hard to put down thrillers, but that both are pretty stark morality fables, with a pretty clean "What would you do?" message for the reader included in the text. Sakey's is more straight up, Koryta cloaks it a bit, though in Koryta's book, with each choice the character makes you feel yourself making it along with him.
In Good People, Sakey's narrative skills could not be more evident. There is absolutely no more gifted writer with a hook - all three of his books have a great one, but the one in Good People seemed to really hit home. The couple in the novel, Tom and Anna Reed, own a brownstone in Chicago and rent out an apartment in it to help cover the mortgage. Their bills and stress level are up because of repeated treatments for fertility that have gone nowhere; and one night when they smell something burning and investigate, they find two things. One is their dead tenant, and the other is a bag with $400.000 which will solve many of their problems. Of course many of us would wonder where this money came from - Tom and Anna do, too - but they figure their tenant is dead, what harm can it do? Well, of course, plenty.
The money had to come from somewhere, and as Sakey has set it up you as the reader know exactly where it came from, and that Tom and Anna's dead tenant was not alone in his endeavour to get his hands on that much cash. In classic thriller fashion the two threads are inevitably going to collide - the question is only "when" and "how". In lesser hands this narrative would be an exercise, but in Sakey's, it's something more. He is able to get you invested in the characters - and some of their family members, and even, in one case, invested in the life of one of the bad guys. He is able to tie emotion to suspense, which is what makes this book memorable.
Koryta has a similar gift. His book is slightly more complex that Sakey's, mostly because the situation isn't totally clear from the beginning; he holds parts of it back for later revelations. This of course is the other way to approach the classic thriller formula. In Koryta's novel, Envy the Night, his central character Frank Temple III is a sort of drifter, an aspiring writer and peripatetic college student who also happens to be the son of a notorious contract killer. Some of this is teased out as the story proceeds, but I'm not giving anything away here. As a result of Frank's somewhat peculiar upbringing he has some skills that heretofore have never seemed useful - he can take a loaded gun out of someone's hand in seconds, for example - but in this novel those skills come in handy.
The action starts when he gets a call from an old friend of his father's in Wisconsin, Ezra Ballard, who merely says to him "Devin is coming back". This sets the rest of the story in motion. Frank hauls ass up to Wisconsin and when he's almost to his father's old cabin gets into a car accident, which requires a tow and inevitably involves the woman who owns the car repair shop and who comes to the accident scene. The other man in the accident gives Norah, the car shop owner, a pile of cash to get started on his car and takes off, after borrowing her car. Frank is left with his wrecked car, Norah, and his father's cabin. Devin and the people surrounding him all converge in an extended, violent episode which showcases Koryta's real gift for writing action scenes. He has the writing chops of a very mature writer, though he is very young.
Koryta's central moral conundrum is "When is killing justified?" He gets the reader so invested in the character of Norah - who also serves as a sort of everywoman - that you are thinking of this question through her horrified eyes. Her reactions will probably mirror your own. She's literally tied down and forced to take the whole thing in, which at the same time forces Frank, in his more, shall we say, active role in the proceedings, to take a long look at what he has been taught about right and wrong. His is definitely a journey of discovery, one you will probably hope never to have to make yourself, though the questions he ends up with are pretty universal.
It's interesting that these two thoughtful and talented writers have turned in their third and fourth books respectively and examined the whole conundrum of mysteries, not just with a similar question but in a similar format - a virtual fable. The question of course is, when is violence appropriate, or necessary? We live in a violent culture and these books are a fair reflection of that. Along with giving you a thrill ride, both these books should have you thinking when you're finished. And definitely looking forward to more books from both Koryta and Sakey.
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