MICHAEL KORYTA – The Cypress House. Little Brown, hardcove, January 2011; paperback, July 2011.
When that is the first line, it is difficult not to go to line two, and so it is with this excellent noirish crime novel, that also happens to be a supernatural novel. You will see it compared to Stephen King, but don’t let that scare you away. Koryta is a first class crime novelist who found his niche in writing tough noirish novels that veer into the supernatural with an admirable ease.
I have avoided the horror genre for the last decade, but Koryta can write. He can also create characters you care about, evil you fear, and choreograph violence like no one else. He’s closer to a cross between John D. MacDonald and Cornell Woolrich than Stephen King.
The time is during the depression, and WWI veteran Arlen Wagner is drifting to his birthplace with a plan we will soon learn, but on the way there, he sees dead men on the train and with nineteen year old Paul Brickill leaves the train in a small North Florida town.
Wagner has reason to trust his instincts. Since Belleau Wood, he has been able to see death coming. He has been able to talk to the dead.
The decision to leave the train at that point wasn’t that good either, though. He has fallen into the fiefdom of Judge Solomon Ward and Sheriff Tolliver and his henchmen deputies. Getting away doesn’t seem likely, so he and Paul find themselves staying at a ramshackle hotel by the ocean owned by beautiful Rebecca Cady.
This is not a modern gothic by any means, for all its atmosphere. Wagner is as tough and hard as any Hammett hero, and Koryta’s prose can be as clean and cut. He doesn’t dwell or linger on gore and grue like a sick twelve-year-old. There are real scares here. There are real mysteries, and not the supernatural kind. Rebecca is tough and beautiful, no fainting heroine to be saved, and her developing relationship with Arlen believable.
Rebecca Cady hates Ward and Tolliver, but is somehow tied to them. As she and Arlen and Paul wait for a coming storm, tensions build between the two men, both attracted to her, and as Arlen pieces together the secrets of Cypress House and the corrupt little county, he is drawn even closer. They used to smuggle whiskey through Cypress House, and once Rebecca’s father was Solomon Ward’s partner, but now Ward holds Rebecca’s convict brother’s life over her head and is in a far more sinister trade.
The final one hundred pages or so of this book consist of a sustained running battle between Arlen and Ward’s men. It may not be a tour de force, but it is as suspenseful and well written as any I have encountered a long time, and Arlen’s history and gift/curse play into it with little or no strain on the reader.
Like the storm the violence and Arlen Wagner won’t be held at bay for long. Both will break with unexpected violence.
I can’t emphasize enough that this is and remains a fine crime novel more than a supernatural one. It never veers off message, loses a step, nor forgets where it is going. Kortya is the most sustained and capable crime writing novelist I have encountered in a long time.
Arlen will fight his battle and confront his personal battle and destiny in a believable manner with the ending so perfect I don’t want to even hint at it.
I won’t explain what that means in Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House, but it does have power. American noir meets American Gothic, and readers of both genres have a win-win. All I can say is this one would make a hell of a noirish crime film, supernatural or not.
Few modern writers I’ve picked up recently impressed me this much, and on top of all that, I found it remaindered for a buck at a dollar store. I would have happily paid more.