Book Title: SO COLD THE RIVER
Author: Michael Koryta
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
No of Pages: 503
It started with a documentary. The beautiful Alyssa Bradford approaches Eric Shaw to unearth the life story of her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, a 95-year-old billionaire whose childhood is wrapped in mystery. Eric grabs the job, even though the only clues to Bradford's past are his hometown and an antique water bottle he's kept all his life.
In Bradford's hometown, Eric discovers an extraordinary past - a glorious domed hotel where movie stars, presidents, athletes and mobsters once intermingled. Long derelict, the hotel has just been restored to its former grandeur.
But something else has been restored too - a long forgotten evil that will stop at nothing to settle a decades-old score. And with every move, Eric inches closer to the centre of the building storm.
Okay, so before we go too much further SO COLD THE RIVER came with a media release that flagged it as, amongst other things an "explosive thriller" and "supernatural horror". Not exactly a recipe for my perfect book. Having said that, there have been plenty of reading examples in my recent past that make me aware that my "recipe" is a very fluid thing.
Eric Shaw is down and out. A disgraced movie maker, separated from his wife, he's in Chicago making "life portraits" for people on video - think weddings, parties, and funerals. During one of these funerals, Shaw is approached by Alyssa who wants him to make a documentary of the life of her father-in-law Campbell Bradford. The family knows very little about the billionaire head of the family, except that his hometown is West Baden in Indiana. Alyssa also hands over a very old bottle of Pluto Water which Campbell has held onto for many years, tying him to not just that small town, but a large part of its own history. This small, mysterious, smelly, murky water bottle is the key to Shaw going to West Baden and somewhere a whole lot stranger.
The language used in SO COLD THE RIVER was quite beautiful in places, the basic bones of story intriguing. An elderly, private man and what happened to him, and this small town over all those years. The author is also doing something that I really like with dialogue: it's crisp, pointed, realistic. There's also the sense of pace and suspense that you want from a first class thriller. They come with an extremely hefty dose of the supernatural, the paranormal. It is absolutely intrinsic to the way that the story unfolds and is told. Undoubtedly Michael Koryta is a very good writer, as I stayed with this book even as I found this increasingly alternative reality more and more unconvincing.
Unfortunately, the supernatural elements were simply laid on so thick that suspension of my disbelief would have required engineering greater than the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge. I'm also not sure I understand the inclusion of horror in the definitions, as there didn't seem to be many of the standard elements I expect with that genre - so if you're normally nervous of that, there's not a lot that should concern you about that.
Undoubtedly this is a book for readers with a higher tolerance for the supernatural elements being a core component of the story. Perhaps that's the difference between SO COLD IS THE RIVER and other books that I've read and enjoyed recently. The supernatural in SO COLD IS THE RIVER is an intrinsic part of the way that this story unfolds - there's no getting around it, there's no balancing of a fantasy and reality. To be fair there's no attempt, no pretence, an overt declaration that this fantastical series of events is the point of the book. Because of that it's most likely a book for people who really like fantasy, the fantastical.. the supernatural. It's likely to also be a book for dedicated fans of Michael Koryta's writing. For the rest of us, well I've not had the pleasure of reading any of Koryta's "straight" crime fiction but I'm going to have to rectify that.