BookBrowse Reviews Down River by John Hart

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Down River

by John Hart

Down River by John Hart
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2007, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2008, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Following his debut, The King of Lies, John Hart returns to Rowan County, where he drives his characters to the edge, explores the dark side of human nature, and questions the fundamental power of forgiveness

You'll probably find Down River in the mystery section of your local bookstore, but its descriptive writing makes it more than a whodunit. As Publisher Weekly says, "Down River should settle once and for all the question of whether thrillers and mysteries can also be literature."

The first-person narrative immediately pulls the reader into Adam Chase's mind, setting the tone for what is to come, when, after returning home from a five-year absence, he says, "The river is my earliest memory. Everything that shaped me happened near that river".

Hart continuously and seamlessly weaves the reader through three layers of Adam's thoughts: his traumatic childhood memories, the town's reaction to his murder charge five years ago, and his present-day search for love and acceptance. His reflections are reminiscent of Pat Conroy (author of The Lords of Discipline, Prince of Tides etc) with sensual and descriptive language of small towns and the beloved land of the region.

"My fascination with the place was morbid, I knew, but it had been my home and I'd loved it…I wondered if it had the taste of me even now, so many years after it spit me out." Adam doesn't have to wonder long. The word "Killer", gouged on the hood of his car the day he returns, is his first clue.

Greed, love, passion, family secrets—any one of these could describe the currents in Down River. How many ways can an author use universal themes and make them unique enough to avoid the stereotypes? Hart does it with believable motives that justify the characters' actions. Also, in Conroy fashion, the Chase family has all the dysfunction required of a good southern read. There are shades of Anne Rivers Siddons here too, both in characters and setting. There's the estranged father-son, the step-mother so wicked she makes Cinderella's mom look like milquetoast*, and the ex-girlfriend tuned cop who is still in love with Adam. Add step-siblings with their own weird agendas of gambling debts and suicide attempts and an old friend gone missing after he begged Adam to return.

Like the river, the "town" itself becomes a vital force as it tries to convince the father to sell the large parcel of land that has been in the family since 1789, meanwhile letting Adam know he is no longer welcome. Adam tries desperately to solve the crime in self-defense, fearing he will be charged again. In doing so, he unravels unimaginable family secrets and puts a haunting memory to rest.

It's rare that one would want to read a mystery again, but once the motives are revealed, it sheds new light on all the characters' previous behaviors. In spite of some repetitive self-reflection on Adam's part, Down River is a book that warrants reading at least once, and perhaps once again for the skillful plot and descriptive language.

*Milquetoast (pronounced milktoast) is an eponym inspired by the comic-strip character Casper Milquetoast, created by Harold Tucker Webster in 1924 - a timid and retiring man named after the insipid dish of the same name consisting of buttered toast in a bowl of milk, once a popular food for invalids. The term is not a new one - as far back as the thirteenth century, similar characters were dismissed as milksops (milksops being untoasted bread soaked in milk).

Reviewed by Vy Armour

This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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