After just three novels in the Lincoln Perry series, Michael Koryta defied the dictates of serial crime fiction and took a purposeful walk in another direction. "Envy the Night," his first standalone novel, was a taut tale of revenge that garnered him accolades and a 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery-thriller. After another Perry mystery, Koryta's path veered into much creepier territory with "So Cold the River" and "The Cypress House," novels that earned him praise from the likes of Dennis Lehane and Stephen King and comparisons to masters in the crime and horror genres.
Now comes Koryta's eighth novel, "The Ridge," another genre-bender, set in the remote town of Whitman in eastern Kentucky. It's December, "the season, quite appropriately, of death," and Wyatt French — town drunk and nutcase who'd built himself a lighthouse in the middle of the woods near Blade Ridge Road — has something on his mind. So he calls Kevin Kimble, the county's senior deputy sheriff, on his cellphone with a strange proposal: "Which would you rather have: a homicide or a suicide?" Although concerned about the "old degenerate" — especially after French asks what if the suicide victim wasn't entirely willing — Kimble's on a mission. He's on his way to a women's prison for his tortured monthly visit with inmate Jacqueline Mathis. Kimble's unspoken sexual attraction toward Mathis has endured despite the five years she's spent in prison — and because she murdered her husband and shot Kimble in the back during his investigation, facts she still can't quite recall.
French then calls Roy Darmus, editor of the just-shuttered Sawyer County Sentinel. The newspaperman knows French well, having reported the old man's dispute with a town couple, Audrey Clark and her recently deceased husband, David, who were relocating their exotic feline preserve to a site near the lighthouse and had complained that the light would disturb the animals. French rambles about needing help on the mountain and the necessity of reporting the story of Kimble's prison visits, a story that somehow relates to Darmus' parents' death in an automobile accident on Blade Ridge Road.
French's cryptic last comment, "I didn't have to die. I could go on as long as I want," compels Darmus to drive out to the ridge, where he finds the old man at the top of his lighthouse, dead from what appears to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound. In his haste to leave the grisly scene and call the police, Darmus falls and breaks one of the lenses French so obsessively tended. Shortly thereafter, a sheriff's deputy miraculously survives a massive car wreck en route to the scene and one of Audrey's big cats goes missing, among other strange doings on Blade Ridge.
"The Ridge" alternates between Kimble and Darmus as they unravel the clues French left behind, including the lyrics to a creepy Josh Ritter song ("I can feel the world circling, sniffing round me in the night") and the names and faces of decades' worth of victims of accidents on the ridge. In the process, they uncover a story of 19th-century greed and hubris that embroils Jacqueline and Kimble, Darmus and the deputy, Audrey and her big cats and other residents of Whitman as they struggle to answer their various callings until life's end and sometimes beyond. In the process, the ridge tests each character, especially Kimble and Jacqueline, in ways that are equally emotionally charged and chill-inducing. Like Koryta's other novels, "The Ridge" is particularly powerful when revealing the telling details of those who are isolated — by profession, by geography, by temperament.
It's admirable to attempt a ghost story that can withstand the cynical skepticism of our time while engaging the reader with characters who struggle with all-too-real dilemmas. Here, Koryta has created a vivid world that's hard to shake for days after the book is finished. In "The Ridge," he has delivered a nuanced supernatural thriller worthy of the praise he's received and that is surely yet to come.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times