A massive cave in southern Indiana symbolizes a family tragedy, a small town’s near ruin and a private detective’s attempts to come to terms with loss in this outstanding launch of a new series by Edgar nominee Michael Koryta.
“Last Words” gives a complete look at the struggles of a town’s residents while also delving into the psyche of an emotionally wrought man. Plus, the descents into the huge, dark cave are quite compelling, as a claustrophobic feel pervades Koryta’s new novel.
The book introduces private investigator Mark Novak, whose depression after the murder of his wife, Lauren, two years before has worsened.
Mark and Lauren, an attorney, worked for a Florida firm specializing in exonerating death-row inmates. Mark’s loss of his wife is exacerbated by guilt: his last words to her were not terms of endearment but a snarky comment. Now Mark may be fired by that firm, which frowns on his attempts to get revenge for his wife’s murder.
As his employment is debated, Mark travels to Garrison, Ind., to investigate the decade-old murder of 17-year-old Sarah Martin, who disappeared inside the tourist cave Trapdoor Caverns. The case is unusual because the request came from Ridley Barnes, an expert spelunker and an outcast in Garrison because he remains the prime suspect, though still uncharged.
None of the townspeople wants to talk with Mark, including the sheriff, and Mark is beaten up, lied to and threatened by his own client. The murder destroyed a family and the town’s sense of safety and ruined it economically: Trapdoor, permanently sealed to outsiders after the tragedy, had the potential to be a huge tourist attraction.
More than one trip through Trapdoor will be necessary to find the truth.
Koryta punctuates the intense underground scenes of “Last Words” with claustrophobia so realistic that it’s palpable. He wrings every moment of excitement possible as the characters crawl through tight spaces and find massive open spaces in a cave that seems to have no end.
“Last Words” is a thrilling start to what should prove to be a solid series.
“Last Words,” by Michael Koryta (448 pages, Little, Brown and Co.; $26)