Title: Desert Places
Review:Brotherly love hammered ad nauseam in an unsavory horror debut. Thirty-something Andy Thomas, a successful horror novelist, is about to experience how unsettling it can be when life decides to imitate art: in other words, he’s about to be scared silly. The note, contained in an unstamped envelope, seems at first unworthy of serious attention: “There is a body buried on your property covered in your blood,” it says. Andy smiles, chuckles even—a fan, he thinks. In his experience, horror fans are prone to that kind of sick joke; still, why not check it out?
He does and, gulp, it checks. He finds poor Rita Jones, a young schoolteacher who’s been missing for about a month, and whose corpse will, in a variety of irrefutable ways, tell tales to police pathologists, tales concerning Andy. In short, he’s been well and truly framed—by his fraternal twin, it soon turns out. Andy hasn’t seen Orson since they were 20, when, inexplicably, the latter walked out of the room they shared at Appalachian State University and vanished. What’s he been up to since?
Why, killing people, innocent people at random, a dozen of them, slicing their hearts out, depositing each in a cardboard box, and then, the collection complete, delivering it to the White House, though without benefit of the usual accompanying apologia. So explain, please. Neither Orson nor the author appears eager to do that. Ambiguous, also, is exactly what game Orson is inviting Andy to play. Whatever it is, Andy’s unwilling. By now, however, he’s convinced there’s only one way to deal with a sibling gone psychopathic, setting the stage for a clash that gives fresh meaning to the phrase blood brothers.
Writing about writers is a very dangerous business. Blake Crouch finds an entertaining method of making it even more dangerous in ‘Desert Places’. There’s no serious art going on here; at least not in the life of the writer about whom Crouch is writing. Andrew Thomas writes thrillers with titles like ‘Blue Murder’ or ‘The Scorcher’. He’s all business and no nonsense. So is Blake Crouch, but he’s considerably more artful than the writer he describes. ‘Desert Places’ brings art and innovation to aspects of the novel where it’s usually in short supply. We all expect a suspense novel to surprise us. But Crouch’s novel manages to do so in some novel ways, and to keep up a positively blistering pace without ever seeming forced.
The setup is clever and simple. Andrew Thomas is getting ready to tour to support his new novel. He writes suspense. He walks out to the mailbox, where he finds a note in an un-mailed envelope. The note informs him that there’s a woman’s body buried on his property, and that evidence will ensure that he’s charged with and convicted for the murder. In the pocket of the woman’s jeans there’s a phone number that he’s to call by the following morning, or else the cops will be tipped and life as he knows it is over. Thomas at first writes off the note as the work of a particularly daffy fan. But doubts linger. He goes to the appointed spot, digs up the body and life as he knew it until that moment is indeed over.
And that’s all by page 7.
Crouch’s accomplishment in ‘Desert Places’ is multilayered. He’s quite adept at creating suspense. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but Crouch makes it look easy, while providing some genuinely breathless thrills. On almost every other page, Crouch presents the reader with what seems like a book-ending scenario. And he cleverly, seamlessly, easily skips past them and takes the reader to a new place or a new level. He twists effortlessly out of every hole he and his characters dig. Those holes are deep and seemingly inescapable, but Crouch and his characters slip away as naturally as a crocodile slips into the water to snatch an unwary swimmer.
Crouch also excels at writing prose with just a whiff of atmosphere. His writing is easy and transparent, but has just enough character to keep it from being bland or mechanical. There’s a hint of music behind the words, but he’s wise enough not to let the song take over the story. He can be evocative when it helps, and can back off when it helps. There’s a thoroughly natural and professional sense of control in the writing.
Crouch does this in spite of some plot and character situations that have seen better days. ‘Desert Places’ is a very curious brew in this regard. He’s written an original-feeling serial killer novel that plunges into the heart of several cliché situations without fear. Sometimes the old tropes work and sometimes they get in the way. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the classic turns and Crouch on occasion finds himself lugging that baggage along. More often than not, he manages to up the ante so quickly we don’t really care, but aficionados of the genre will find some of the situations overly familiar until Crouch speeds past them.
Characterization is key in any novel and more so in a serial killer novel. Crouch does well by his characters in ‘Desert Places’, especially in terms of the all-important turning of the tables. All too often a novel of terror or crime fiction depends on simply putting a character in danger and then having them escape the danger through a combination of luck and cunning. ‘Desert Places’ admirably puts the people on the platter and all of the characters are forced to face a reality that won’t allow them to escape untouched.
Readers should definitely be warned that ‘Desert Places’ is dark, horrific, violent and disturbing. If you are at all squeamish, this is a novel to avoid. Now, while lots of the novel is disturbing, the disturbing bits are a mixed bag. Sometimes they’re chillingly effective and others they’re merely ugly. It’s all going to scare the living daylights out of you, but some of it will be done with a classy frisson of terror, while at other times, Crouch follows the advice of Stephen King and simply “goes for the gross-out”. Even then, it’s done in the name of character building, or, more accurately, character destroying. There’s an awful lot of violence, but none of it is pointless. You might not like the violence and you might like the point even less, but nothing happens without a reason.
‘Desert Places’ offers an unusual mix of horror, psychological character study and fast-paced crime fiction. Crouch is at his best when he’s twisting the plot about like a kid rippling a ribbon in the wind. The changes happen so quickly it all seems perfectly real, a nightmare unfolding with relentless logic and unrepentant terror. One of the hallmarks of an effective author of terrorizing fiction is the ability to create a believable “anything can happen” feel. Crouch has that in spades. His first novel has more than enough going for it to make the reader wish that the promised sequel was already on the shelves. ‘Desert Places’ is an intriguing patch of pitch black in the fictional landscape.
Sordid and mindlessly sadistic. There may be an audience for stuff this nasty, but wary readers will pass. Sadly, a sequel’s in the works.
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