Book Talk: Koryta — ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’
Michael Koryta is one of the finest writers of mystery/thriller novels in contemporary America. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (2014, 392 pages in paperback edition) is a prime example. It has all the elements of a thriller, including serial killers, but they are not the focus of the book. Instead, Koryta zeroes in on Jace Wilson, a 14-year-old boy who is hunted by the murderous psychopathic Blackwell Brothers.
Jamie Bennett, a federal marshal, arrives at Ethan Serbin’s home in the middle of the night to see if Jace can masquerade as an at-risk youth and attend Ethan’s wilderness-survival camp with other kids who have run afoul of the law. Although Ethan’s wife, Allison, distrusts Jamie, she agrees that taking the youngster “off the grid” is preferable to seeing him placed in the WITSEC program.
Allison, who figures prominently in the novel, tells Ethan, “You won’t be able to say no. You’ll be watching every news story, searching for some kid who was killed or who disappeared. You’ll be calling Jamie asking for updates she won’t be able to give you. Your entire summer will be lost to wondering if you put him in harm’s way when you could have taken him out of it. Am I wrong?”
Jace arrives at the Serbin camp posing as Connor Reynolds, a hard case kid who’d rather be almost anyplace other than in Montana’s wilderness. But he shows a remarkable ability to master the survival skills as Ethan teaches them.
With Ethan and the kids on the way to establishing their survival camp, the killers show up at “The Ritz” (Servin’s cabin) to extract information from Allison regarding the whereabouts of Jace/Connor. In an act of self-sacrifice that made me think of the concluding section of Ken Follett’s best-seller, “Eye of the Needle,” Allison gives as much as she gets.
Ethan receives a signal that there is trouble at home and decides to guide the boys back to The Ritz. However, Jace/Connor reasons that the killers have discovered him, hangs back a bit as the group trudges back toward Ethan’s home, and disappears.
The boy makes his way to a fire tower, where Hanna is keeping track of a wildfire that is spreading through the wilderness. With an act of desperation that stunned Hanna (as well as me), Jace convinces her that killers are on his trail. She and the boy begin a trek that takes them between a modern version of Scylla and Charybdis. This is one more heart-pounding subplot in a book that is so intense that I could not put it down. Literally. Several times after midnight, I turned off the light to go to sleep only to turn it on again a few minutes later to find out what happens next.
I’ve recommended many books that build tension as hills and valleys. This one by Michael Koryta is a straight uphill nail-bitter from beginning to end. I’ve reviewed four other Koryta novels in this column, and each has been a spell binder.
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Note: Any similarity between the book and the movie of the same title is purely coincidental. I would be tempted to say that the people who wrote the screenplay didn’t bother to read the book, except that the screenplay writers are Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan, and…(wait for it)…Michael Koryta. How can that be?
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at email@example.com.