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Onyx reviews: Last Words by Michael Koryta
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/14/2015
Usually an author sends his protagonist on a mission that he embraces
whole-heartedly, doggedly following the clues and red herrings until he gets to
the truth. Investigator Mark Novak doesn't care one bit about the decade-old
murder of Sarah Martin
inside a cave in Garrison, Indiana. No one really expects him to solve the case,
to absolve the prime suspect, Ridley Barnes. He's so disengaged from and disinterested in the murder and its trappings that he doesn't even bring warm
clothes on this wintertime mission.
Two years ago, Novak's wife was killed en route to
interviewing a psychic about one of their cases and he's having a hard time
letting that unsolved case go. In particular, he's haunted by the last words he said to
her that day, and the synchronicity of the date with that of Sarah Martin's murder pushes some of his emotional buttons. At first, this seems like a simple character
detail, something to make
Novak more interesting. However, as Novak's investigation proceeds, he learns
something from his boss that makes those last words, and the circumstances
surrounding the situation that inspired them, even more poignant.
His wife also worked for Innocence Incorporated, a Florida-based business
support to Death Row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted. One problem with
the Martin case is that no one has ever been prosecuted for her murder. Barnes,
an eccentric obsessed with caves, has been under a cloud of suspicion for the
past decade, but there was never enough evidence to bring charges.
Novak is in Indiana because Barnes sent a letter to Innocence Inc. in which
he claims he has no memory of the incident. He wants to know the truth, even if
the investigation sends him to prison, so in a way this runs counter to the business's
mission. But Novak has been playing fast and loose with the rules so his boss sent him to Garrison to give him a chance to lay low, cool off and weather
the storm surrounding some of his recent activities. As a PI, Novak has access
to a lot of resources, not all of them legit, and he has been bringing them to
bear on the investigation into his wife's murder.
No one in Garrison is interested in poking the sleeping bear that has been
the Martin case. Everyone believes they know the truth. Martin disappeared
inside the Trapdoor Cavern and Barnes, despite his erratic behavior, knew the
intricate system of caves better than anyone else so he was allowed to lead the
search. He brought her out, but the teenager was dead, handcuffed and looking
like she had been beaten. Barnes' claims that he didn't know where he found her
or how she died made him look guilty.
Novak thinks he'll be able to wrap up this futile, busy-work investigation in the few days it will
take his superiors to decide his professional fate, but
the locals are determined not to cooperate with him, and their resistance—sometimes
violent—inspires Novak to dig deeper. The Trapdoor, once seen as a lucrative
discovery that would put Garrison on the map, has been closed ever since the
murder, and the town is dying. Barnes, for whom Trapdoor is an obsession on a
level akin to Captain Ahab's, has been trying to find a way to get back
inside ever since. He almost believes the caverns are alive and communicating
Not long after he arrives in Garrison, Novak ends up lost deep inside the
caves in total darkness. It's an incredibly claustrophobic and harrowing scene that many
writers would have saved for the book's climax, so suspenseful is it. But Koryta
has plenty of suspense left up his literary sleeve. Forces are working to thwart
Novak, but they don't seem to want him dead, so what is the motivation for
countering and discrediting his investigation? Are people working against Barnes
or are they working on his behalf? All roads lead back to the unexplored
sections of Trapdoor and the secrets long hidden within.
In addition to dealing with the fascinating and thrillingly dangerous world
of cave exploration, Last Words also tackles
the controversial subject of hypnotherapy. Barnes has been visiting a hypnotist
in an attempt to recover memories of that fateful day, and Novak avails himself
of her services to try to regain details of the assault that left him lost
in Trapdoor Cavern. Many investigators appreciate the value of the process, but
also understand that nothing learned from hypnotherapy will ever be admissible
in court because many people suspect it causes patients to fabricate repressed
memories. On both of these topics, it is clear that Koryta has done his
research, but he weaves it into the fabric of the narrative rather than
bludgeoning readers with it.
is the first book in a series, and it seems likely that Novak will attack his
wife's murder mystery in earnest in the next volume, Rise the Darkness.
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