A 'cypress house', as Michael Koryta tells us in his new thriller by the same name, was at one time a common euphemism for a coffin; in other words a death house, constructed of long-lasting cypress boards, a most durable wood, built to hold a corpse for quite some time. It's also the name of the gulf coast roadhouse, where Arlen Wagner and Paul Brickhill find themselves near the start of the story; not such an advantageous foreboding.
But foreboding seems to be Arlen's cup of tea. At the outset of The Cypress House, he and Paul, along with a number of other job hungry men, are sharing a compartment on a train bound for Miami. From there they plan to travel on to the Florida keys where Roosevelt's CCC labor program promises plenty of work. But fate has other plans for them.
As they near their destination, Arlen, a World War I veteran, begins to have gruesome visions. Smoke billows from men's eye sockets, flesh evaporates from their hands revealing only bleached white bone. To Arlen, these hallucinations, which first appeared to him in Europe during the Great War, can only portend death; but not certain death, as we will later learn. At the next station, he warns the men to stay off the train, but only Paul, an eager and talented young engineer, who Arlen has seen fit to take under his wing, heeds the warning. Arlen and Paul hit the road instead, embarking on an adventure they may just regret.
Thrillers with a tinge of the paranormal seem to be a Michael Koryta's specialty. His last book, So Cold The River, which was an amazon.com pick of the month, employed a mystical liquid called Pluto Water as the catalyst for the drama. After a gulp of the enigmatic potable, the main character starts having dreamlike visions, which aid him in solving the novel's central mystery. Extreme weather also plays a part in that story as it does, although to a lesser degree, in The Cypress House.
The Cypress House succeeds wonderfully in evoking a particular time and place: Gulf coast Florida in the 1930's. You can feel the humidity, smell the decay, taste the liquor. The dialogue is pitch perfect and the characters, though some minor ones border on caricature, are well developed and make unobvious choices. Things go wrong for Arlen and Paul right off the bat, but the story is not a cookie cutter thriller. It is more reminiscent of the 1950's crime noir novels of Jim Thompson.
Koryta delivers here, as one would expect, with suspense, romance, and mystery. But by delving deeper into his character's past, he enables them to grow and change with purpose. Near the end of the book, Arlen, after re-examining his dubious roots, uncovers a painful hidden truth. Facing this pain enables him to develop his curse of portent into a transcendent power that in turn, allows him to take control of his fate. It is this discovery of purpose that frees The Cypress House from the brand of the average thriller.
~Book Jones~ 4.0 Stars