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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, or 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 that provides 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 with him.

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.

Last Words 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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