Sunday, 13 July 2008

JOHN HART'S DOWN RIVER: Edgar meets Richard & Judy

John Murray £7.99 ISBN 9781848540958

Down River appears in paperback in this country following its capture of the Edgar Award for best novel from America’s Crime Writers, and more importantly from a British point of view, its selection as a 'summer read' by the Richard and Judy Book Club. Its covers compare John Hart to Grisham and Turow (presented as single-word brand names, like Oprah, Madonna, or Cher), but the unacknowledged master to whom he aspires in this novel seems to me to be Thomas H Cook, a more challenging writer than either of those best-sellers. That Hart gets at least part of the way there is no small compliment.

Although the R&JBC was born in copycat hommage to America’s Oprah, you can make a case that, although Oprah may have engaged with some more challenging literature, her bias toward ‘worthiness’, a traditional American approach to self-improvement that goes all the way back to the Puritans, shortchanges some fiction, including so-called ‘genre’ fiction, and may make her list less interesting overall. Two years ago Richard and Judy (or their producer Deborah Ross) were perceptive enough to pick Michael Connelly, whose work no one would suggest provides Oprah’s necessary moral uplift, and they may have made an equally astute call with Hart.

Down River begins with Adam Chase returning to his North Carolina home, five years after he was acquitted of a murder there. Three weeks earlier, his best friend had asked for unspecified help, but it had taken him that long to decide to leave his protective anonymity in New York. When he arrives home, he finds his friend has taken off, and soon people start dying. To Chase, who witnessed his own mother’s suicide, this is not unusual; he’s a sensitive brawler, a tough but tender hero who has a strong determination to get to the bottom of things.

The set-up is pure Cook, small-town America and dark secrets from the past which will be revealed in the chaos of the present. There has always been a somewhat gothic element to Cook, and what makes this story so interesting is the strong Southern flavor of the gothic. Deeply buried family secrets, hot and humid repression, and heavy undertones of violence; as if Cook were being merged with Erskine Caldwell.

Adam’s stepmother had been the main witness at his trial, identifying him as the killer. His step-brother is now running the family business, his step-sister was a friend of the boy Chase was accused of killing. His father’s best friend has a daughter, Grace, whom Adam thought of as a younger sister, and just to make things interesting, half the town wants to sell their river land to a corporation to build a nuclear power station, but Chase’s father, the area’s biggest landowner, will not. After all, the land has been in the family for two hundred years.

You can see where the story might be going, and for the most part it does go in that direction, although Adam’s old girlfriend also just happens to be a detective on the local police force. There aren’t that many twists, some things are pretty obvious to the reader long before they are to Adam, but in the end Hart handles the suspense very well. The core of the book, however, is the dealing with the deep waters of the river of family relations. The book ends on a note of slight ambiguity, just enough to lead me to consider that two of its characters would be a perfect pair to start a detective agency, and the backwoods of North Carolina, even though they might be starting vineyards these days, might offer enough outrĂ© crime to be worthwhile hunting grounds. Just a thought. Is this the crime novel most worthy of R&J? Maybe not. But is it a fine crime novel? Yes it is.

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