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Onyx reviews: The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

Over the course of nine days, Brewster, Rhode Island changes from a sleepy little hamlet into the center of a violent crime spree that draws national attention and pits neighbor against neighbor. The local police are ill-equipped to handle the rash of killings and other crimes that plague the town in the days leading up to Halloween.

It all starts with the disappearance of a newborn from the maternity ward at the hospital. Ordinarily a kidnapping would instantly garner the sympathy of a community. However, the mother isn't concerned about the missing baby because she thinks it's the child of the devil, which dampens people's interest in it. They are more curious about the snake that was left in the baby's place, which is seen as an omen, drawing attention away from the real crime.

Emotions become charged when a stranger in town is found murdered and scalped. Long-time residents begin to eye each other with suspicion. Locks and security systems are installed. Rocks are thrown through the windows of suspected witches. Pets are killed. Teenage girls are kidnapped and raped during rituals led by masked men. Coyotes increase in numbers and in aggressive behavior toward livestock and people, and the death rate—natural and otherwise—grows to astronomical proportions. The town seems to be on the verge of collapse.

The story is told by an all-knowing narrator who at times observes from on high and on other occasions from up close. He knows everything about the residents of Brewster. His tone is often light and jaunty. He makes statements and then corrects himself or expands upon his thoughts. He invites the reader to join him as he swoops around town to take a peek at what's going on. Though he appears detached from the action, he is intensely interested in it and fond of this poor little town that has already suffered a beating at the hands of the poor economy.

At times it seems like everyone in Brewster has a speaking part in the novel as their secrets and hidden desires are exposed by the narrator. The cast is so large that it may take readers a while to orient themselves to who's who. Some characters are distinctive: Carl Krause, the hateful stepfather of Hercel McGarty, the boy with the unusual name (short for Hercules) and the wild talent. Deputy Woody Potter, a recently dumped Iraq war vet, and the most visible and effective face of the police investigation who begins a relationship with a former journalist for the town's newspaper. Acting Police Chief Fred Bonaldo, who doesn't possess the leadership skills to handle crimes of this magnitude and whose son is an infamous prankster who wants nothing more than to be friends with Hercel.

The book doesn't give up its mysteries all at once—and in some cases not at all. It starts out feeling like a horror novel but transitions into a crime thriller. Seemingly supernatural events generally have mundane explanations, but not always. Hercel (the owner of the snake that ended up in the missing baby's crib) has the ability to move things with his mind, though he is hesitant to discuss it, even with his friends, and only uses this power seriously on only one occasion, though he has an amusing scene in the library involving a tennis ball. His step-father appears to be a shape-shifter, but his bizarre thoughts and behavior could all boil down to drug-fueled mania and insanity. Otherwise rational people begin to accept that anything is possible.

One character comments that Brewster's troubles didn't start at once. "Think how termites eat their way through a timber, perhaps a beam supporting a house. Then the house collapses and people say it 'suddenly' collapsed. But it wasn't sudden. It was the next step in a steady progression. All that happened was the progression came into view." This man, who works at a local yoga shop and has a keen gift for observation, tells Woody to stop looking at the surface for the source of the town's troubles. "The cause lies within the crisscrossing tunnels underneath." Woody's task is to figure out which crimes are "real," and which are meant to distract him and the other members of his task force from finding out which of the town's seemingly innocuous residents is behind what's really going on and what they're up to.

The novel's title will tantalize readers. It's a nickname for a local crematorium that isn't seen until nearly the end of the book, but it must be important to the story if the author uses it as the title. On the other hand, the title may be a poetic metaphor for Brewster, a place that becomes a pressure cooker of suspicion and hatred. Though even some members of the task force start to buy into supernatural explanations for what's happening to their town, fundamental human nature lies at the heart of the misery heaped upon this once-quiet, once-charming, once-trustful little town.

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