Michael Koryta is no stranger to fame, but his last standalone (not written as part of series) novel So Cold the River received rave reviews from all over the place -- it was an Amazon Best Book of the Month in June 2010, reviewed by NPR, written about in the NY Times, and excerpted in the Wall Street Journal. In addition to So Cold the River, Koryta is the author of the Lincoln Perry crime series. Koryta's recent successes are now followed by another standalone novel released this week, The Cypress House.
The Cypress House shares with So Cold the River its supernatural themes. Arlen Wagner, a World War I veteran, has a devastating gift: he sees death. Once Arlen has seen smoke in a person's eyes, it's only a matter of time before they meet their end. As he boards a train bound for Key West with a group of Civilian Conservation Corps men, he sees smoke in the eyes of his fellow passengers and is forced to reveal what this means -- their immiment demise. All but one of the men refuse to listen to his ghost-talk, and they travel on to the camp in the Keys. Days later Arlen hears news that a hurricane killed all the men by wiping out the railway line they were traveling on.
He and friend Paul Brickhill end up at the Cypress House, an old bed and breakfast that is still up and running, yet mysteriously devoid of customers. Despite the mystery that surrounds the inn, Arlen and Paul are both drawn to the madame of the house, Rebecca Cady. More deaths, run-ins with the local sheriff, dealings with the mafia, and the Cypress House's own grisly history keep Arlen and Paul on their toes as they try to determine their next move. Arlen's gift both helps and haunts him throughout the action-packed novel.
I am not always a fan of supernatural elements in literature, nor am I usually a reader of action novels. However, Michael Koryta manages to incorporate both of these into an excellent novel that kept me interested throughout its entirety. He writes the ghost story so well, I actually had goosebumps some of the time. I live with the belief that "there's no such thing as ghosts," but in Koryta's world everything is possible -- and he writes it so that it becomes possibility. In addition to his gift as a storyteller and character-builder, Koryta does an excellent job of incorporating the historical, 1930s Florida setting into the novel. The setting almost becomes a character in itself -- a skill I adore in an author.
I especially like that Koryta did his homework for The Cypress House. The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane really occurred, and it has been considered the strongest storm to ever touch land in the United States. It was responsible for destroying the Florida East Coast Railway between mainland Florida and the Keys. The CCC also existed as a plan by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to keep men working during the Great Depression. Many of these were World War I veterans that had been unable to find work after returning home from the war. CCC camp workers in Florida helped create state park facilities that are still in use today. And a Cypress House inn also exists in the Florida Keys -- I'm not sure it has much in common with Koryta's version, but I love that it is there.
I'm glad Koryta has several previous novels for me to go back and read. I can't wait to dive into both the Lincoln Perry series and his previous standalone novels -- especially So Cold the River. Koryta is currently on book tour for The Cypress House. Check out the schedule to find out if he's coming to a city near you.