Written by Michael Koryta — Mark Novak works as a principal investigator for Innocence Incorporated, a Florida law firm whose mission statement is to take on pro-bono death row cases where they feel there has been a miscarriage of justice. How much longer he’ll work for them is up for debate since his recent behaviour has done little to inspire confidence in their board, and might be seen as completely against their cause.
Three years ago Novak’s wife, a lawyer for the firm, was murdered on a routine assignment. Since then his performance has deteriorated as all his energy has gone into finding her killer. He is not after justice. He wants revenge. Novak wants the killer dead, and word has leaked out to his bosses. If they can find proof, Novak will be out of a job – a job he needs very much because the resources it brings with it are essential if he is to find his target.
His immediate boss, Jeff London, has some sympathy for Novak. In order to keep him off the radar and out of trouble, London has given him an unusual case. It’s one the firm would not normally get involved with, in Garrison, Indiana. In September 2004, a local teenager called Sarah Martin went missing when on a date with her boyfriend. They were exploring a recently opened tourist cave called Trapdoor Cavern and became separated in the dark. A search was organised but Sarah wasn’t found. After three days, just as the search was to be called off, Ridley Barnes, a river caver who himself got lost in the cave during the searches, appeared with Sarah in his arms. She was dead.
Barnes’ statements to the local police were inconsistent. First he said he found her alive, and later that she was dead. He said that the cave spoke to him and said it wanted him to be the one who found her. He couldn’t remember where Sarah was found, and after police began to treat him as a suspect he refused further interviews. For over a decade he has continued to live in Garrison, but as a pariah rather than a hero, and it is him who has requested Innocence Incorporated’s involvement. He wants to know himself whether he’s guilty or innocent.
Novak’s arrival in the small community is soon big news. The local sheriff is not pleased to see him and views Novak with suspicion. He is not keen to re-open old wounds as he had a relationship with Sarah’s mother, and it was his decision to invite Barnes onto the search team in the first place.
When Novak meets Barnes the man comes across as guarded, unstable, and pursuing an unspoken agenda. Barnes’ suggestion that Novak should spend some time alone in the dark in Trapdoor Cavern to understand ‘her’ strengthens his resolve to leave Garrison as quickly as possible.
Two things happen to change his mind. The first is a meeting with Sarah’s mother who implores him to find the girl’s killer. However, he discovers later during a disastrous telephone call with a local reporter that Sarah’s mother committed suicide a few years prior. So who is the woman he’s spoken to? The second is his abduction and beating at the hands of three masked men. He is left for dead within Trapdoor, and it is Barnes who goes in to save him.
Before Novak met his wife, he was a rough man who came from a tough background. Badly beaten, and with nothing left to lose, he has to call upon his mean streak if he is going to save his own life, never mind solving the mystery.
Koryta is a veteran of more than 10 mystery, suspense and private detective novels, but perhaps is less well known in the United Kingdom than in the US. Last Words should go a long way to changing that. This is a mainstream thriller and I am sure his publishers have high hopes that the same crowd of occasional readers who make the likes of James Patterson and Harlan Coben rich will buy this book.
Koryta, however, is a better writer. Populist or mainstream can sometimes mean lowest-common denominator, but Last Words is an exception. There is nothing average about this book. A thriller has to be fast-paced and tense, but to stand out there has to be more to hold your interest. Koryta delivers it in spades. It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into this book – the claustrophobic setting, a strong likeable protagonist whom you want to succeed, and a solid mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the end. This is the best thriller I have read since Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 5 Stars