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Thomas H. Cook: Into the Web

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Bantam (Paperback), ISBN: 0-553-58092-2

Book: thomas h cook, into the web
One of the great pleasures of opening each new Thomas H. Cook novel is that he eschews the standard rent-a-thriller style employed by most of the other writers on the thriller shelves. Further, Cook tailors his writing style to the mood of the subject matter, so that in effect, if you follow Cook's novels you get several thriller writers for the price of one. (If you choose to call them thrillers -- they tend to transcend the category's guidelines.)

Thus the last Cook novel I reviewed for Crescent Blues, Peril, displayed a wonderfully spare dispassionate style that perfectly offset its very romantic tale of love trying to flower and of people trying to be people in brutally adverse circumstances. Brutality also lies at the heart of Into the Web, but here we see the kind of brutality that communities accept almost as if not realizing it exists -- the brutality perpetrated by their authority figures. The ex-sheriff of a small, remote West Virginia town, Kingdom City, plays the role of central brute. The style emulates that of the bucolic novel, which matches the way Kingdom City would like to see itself and us to see it; the events depict the true corruption and violence at Kingdom City's heart.

Roy Slater left Kingdom City for college in California weeks after his simple-minded brother Archie, in custody for viciously murdering the hostile parents of his girlfriend, hanged himself in his cell. Now, two or three decades later (the text leaves this a little unclear), Roy returns to be at the side of his dying father. Old Sheriff Porterfield has retired, but his son Lonnie, a chip off a pretty revolting block, runs things in his father's place. Roy, escaping for a while from the curmudgeonly company of his father, stumbles into conversation with Lonnie, and hence almost immediately into the investigation of a suspicious death.

That death proves to be no mystery at all -- in a delightful tease of our preconceptions, Cook soon lets us know this was merely a matter of a poor elderly man dying of chronic illness. But the death occurred on property owned by Roy's youthful sweetheart, Lila Cutler, whom he planned to return from college to marry and take away from Kingdom County, but who wrote and told him not to bother -- she would never, after all, be his.

The reopening of this old wound draws Roy into prodding at another. Over the years, ye remained convinced, despite Archie's confession, that his gentle-souled brother could not have been guilty of the decades-ago double homicide.

If Archie didn't do it, who did? Digging into the old crime, Roy discovers atrocities hidden for decades by Kingdom City's acceptance of central evils. This forces him to constantly reappraise the people around him (notably his own father) and his interpretations of their motives for their past acts. What appears to be profound vileness can prove to be philanthropy, but the philanthropy in turn may conceal an even worse vileness. What seems mystery may be no mystery at all; the mystery may lie within what appears to be clear-cut…

The dissection of the present to reveal the truth that gave rise to it proves engrossing, and Cook succeeds also in making his tale extremely moving. Old Sheriff Porterfield emerges as one of the more terrifying brutes of modern fiction, even though his sense of duty can lead him to perform on occasion the kindest of deeds. But what really stirs the emotions, as Roy unearths the truth about not only the old homicides but also Lila Cutler, his father, and ultimately himself, is the sheer quantity of human happiness lost over the decades -- the waste of human lives -- through the failure of a community to face up to the monster it placed in the position of master.

There is an obvious political allegory here, but Cook skillfully declines to take it too far, leaving it to the reader to connect the relevant dots. Besides, this is only one aspect of a novel whose shortness conceals the multiplicity of its layers. It's quite astonishing, in fact, that Bantam should have chosen to release this little masterpiece, reminiscent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, as a mass-market original, since you'll want to keep Into the Web on your shelves for repeated reading. Hopefully there'll be a hardcover of it in due course.

John Grant

Click here to read John Grant's review of Peril.

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