THE CYPRESS HOUSE by Michael Koryta
Michael Koryta is a gifted writer talented enough to switch genres at a moment’s notice. I first noticed him as an award winning mystery writer when I read (and reviewed) his first Lincoln Perry private eye novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye. He wasn’t yet twenty-one when the book was published and received those awards.
The private eye novels aren’t that big of a stretch for Koryta, though, he began interning with a real private eye while still attending high school. From an early age, Koryta knew he wanted to be a writer, and he obviously chose a career path that would enhance his education. While in college, he worked as a private eye and a newspaper reporter, both fields that lend themselves to writing fiction.
But I was still blown away when I sat down to listen to The Cypress House, a moody, slow-burn horror novel firmly rooted in crime-laden 1930s Florida. The amount of research Koryta did for the novel is impressive, but even more impressive is the way he captures the nuances of that world and the rough-hewn characters that inhabited those years and places.
Arlen Wagner is a fully realized man in his middle years (probably old enough to be Koryta’s father in real life) that leaps from the pages as soon as the book is opened. Arlen isn’t a red-blooded American hero even though he survived the horrors of the Great War. Through it all, Arlen is just a man, a very capable man in a bad place during bad times. If there had been another choice, if he hadn’t been trapped by circumstance and his own feelings, Arlen would have abandoned the rundown, out of the way bar run by Rebecca Cady.
Koryta unfolds the characters and the backstory of the place and the corrupt judge slowly, so some readers looking for instant action will have to be patient, but the payoff is awesome. Once you’re turning the pages where Arlen has to wade through the swamp with only the voices of the dead to guide him, there’s no way you can stop.
The audiobook version I listened to was read by Robert Petkoff, whom I had not heard of before but I will definitely remember him now. Petkoff’s voice perfectly complements the spooky atmosphere of southern Florida in the 1930s. He does excellent voice work and I could instantly tell each character from the other, and the emotions from the tonal changes.
I hope this one makes it to the movies because it would be a truly good, gripping film.