Book Talk: ‘Last Words’ — plodding, yet fascinating

I think that only Michael Koryta could have written this story. Compared to his other novels, this one sort of plods along, but the author’s vivid description of scenes kept me turning the pages. Also, I think that you will appreciate this book if you’ve ever taken a tour into any deep cave where there are chambers that are completely devoid of light.


In total darkness, our brain tells us to wait a few seconds until our eyes adjust to the dark, but with no light source that’s simply not possible. Without a compassionate guide to reassure us, the experience can be frightening and is not recommended to those who are even slightly claustrophobic. Yet, a good part of Michael Koryta’s “Last Words” (2015, 448 pages) takes place in this very environment, and his descriptions are chilling.


The protagonist of this tale is Mark Novak, a private investigator whose wife died two years ago on an assignment that should have been his. Constantly tormented by the last words that he said to her, Mark is struggling to hold onto his job for an organization that specializes in exonerating death-row prisoners. But, in a change from procedure, his firm has been asked to look into a murder that occurred a decade ago, and they’ve been contacted by Ridley Barnes, a caver who is suspected of being the killer.


When Novak arrives in town, he soon finds himself in a conversation with Diane Martin, the mother of Sarah Martin. It was Sarah who was pulled out of Trapdoor, the series of caves that seem to have mysterious powers. One of the first problems that Novak has to face occurs when he is told by the sheriff that Diane Martin had died years ago.


As Novak continues with his investigation, he encounters Julienne Grossman, a hypnotist and manipulator, who he discovers was impersonating Diane Novak. About this time, Novak is abducted, blindfolded, stripped down to his underwear, and placed inside Trapdoor. It is at this point where Koryta’s skillful writing nearly saves the entire book from being a second-rate novel. He writes about Novak’s horror with the intensity of Stephen King. The reader can practically feel the cold creeping deep into bones, the cave “speaking” to its prisoner, and the dread that consumes Novak as it becomes clear to him that he will not survive the experience.


In one of the largely unexplained twists, it is Ridley Barnes who finds and rescues Novak. And not only do many people suspect that Ridley is a killer, Ridley himself doesn’t remember the events surrounding Sarah Martin’s death. Without giving the end away, I can tell you that — at least for me — the essence of the novel is the effect that the cave has on those who come in contact with it.


This quotation captures that essence: “You understand how a man’s memory could go. Alone in the dark, down here? You understand what nobody else could. Things happen in the dark that you can’t make any sense of. So, you try to. You do that by telling yourself a story. Maybe the story is wrong, but it’s the only one you have, and so it becomes the truth.”


This may not be one of Koryta’s best novels, but it is one that is certainly chock full of such manufactured truths.


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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