Hachette Australia, RRP $29.99 E-book $16.99
In Last Words we find private detective Mark Novak sent by his employers, Innocence Incorporated, to the frozen Midwest town of Garrison at the request of Ridley Barnes, the suspect of a 10 year old murder. If he really was the killer he wants to pay for his crime, if not he wants his name cleared.
Reading detective novels is like doing a favourite puzzle over and over again. You know how it will turn out but you enjoy the journey and there is always the tiny possibility that this time it might all end differently. It never does but that does not spoil the enjoyment. Detective novels, like romances are a strange beast. At some point many years ago readers decided what made a readable, and buyable, detective novel. Writers have been churning them out ever since. They seem to come up with endlessly new ways and reasons to murder attractive young women (it is almost always attractive young women) in the same way that song writers seem to keep coming up with new tunes even though there are only 12 notes on the scale.
Michael Koryta’s twist to the whole attractive-young-woman-is-murdered plot is to take a lot of the action down into the caves below Garrison. Not the great big caverns with stalagmites hanging down but the terrifying wet, cold, dark ones you have to crawl through. He does this very well, managing to keep you reading while his characters are scrabbling around in various degrees of darkness, terror and sanity.
Ridley Barnes is an expert—but slightly unhinged—caver, who 10 years before seemed to have ‘rescued’ a teenage girl lost in a cave named Trapdoor. The only problem was that he found her by himself; she was dead by the time he brought her back and he cannot remember where he found her or any of the circumstances in between. When Mark Novak comes to investigate the snow-swept town of Garrison it does not welcome him with open arms. The dead girl’s mother comes to his motel to confront him, the only problem is that she too has been dead for a years, the victim of an overdose. Mark must work fast to save his job, his sanity and all the while wrestle with demons from his own past and deal with another mainstay of the detective genre, the crusty but likeable sheriff who wants to put him on the next horse out of town.
All the elements to make a good detective story are here. No spoiler alert is required at this point—all detective stories follow this plot—so I am not giving anything away.
The detective is a man with demons—his own wife was killed a few years before, he has yet to find her killer. As I said, the victim is a attractive-young-woman. The reasons why she was murdered turns out to have nothing to do with those originally thought. The person hinted at as the real killer turns out to be innocent. The person whom you never suspected for one minute, thanks to the writers slight of hand, turns out to have been the bad guy all along (just like at the end of Scooby-do). The detective is vindicated and the mystery is solved. There is a little bro-mance or romance along the way, the detective learns some valuable lessons about himself and becomes a little more spiritual or philosophical before going off into the sunset. The End.
Koryta is a skilled writer working within the tight framework of the detective novel and is doing a good job of it. Last Words is on par with some of the better examples of the genre, it meets the standard and delivers what it promises. Last Words was worth the read and if you are a detective novel fan you will definitely enjoy the ride, well trodden though it is.