Blake Crouch, author of the Wayward Pines series, reviews Joe Heart's new psychological thriller The River is Dark, available now on Kindle.
Liam Dempsey, the protagonist of The River is Dark, arrives in Tallston, Minnesota, a sleepy, scenic town on the banks of the Mississippi River. An ex-homicide detective, he’s come to investigate the grizzly murder of his estranged brother and his brother’s wife, and to set their affairs in order. But these murders are different. His family wasn’t just killed. They were literally torn apart, and their deaths are just the beginning of a rampage of violence that’s riding into town. Such is the setup of Joe Hart’s excellent thriller, The River is Dark, which is easily one of the best thrillers I have read in a long time.
I find that books often fall into one of two categories. Great story-telling/plot + mediocre writing. Or the inverse—beautiful writing + a story that goes nowhere. If the plot is sexy enough, I’ll hang with it, but great writing absent a story is always a non-starter for me.
Hart, thank God, has ALL the goods.
First off, the man can write. Witness this beautiful passage that describes our hero waking up:
“With a grunt he rolled over and slapped at the button, eventually silencing the screeching clock. He listened. The popping sound of the late-summer sun warming the floorboards of the old farmhouse kitchen, the jangle of the wind chimes on the front porch, a breeze pressing its breath against the old windows in the bedroom, a car passing on the highway and then gone.”
The River is Dark is filled with such passages. Hart approaches every sentence with a precision and care that armors the entire piece with a welcome sturdiness. More than anyone else, Hart’s delicate touch with landscape and character (especially Dempsey) reminds me of the great James Lee Burke. And never is his command of language on more of a display than his utterly riveting action sequences. Hart can flat-out write action, and with prose that’s muscular and enthralling, that isn’t afraid to linger in the thrills and scares of the moment..
But the great news for readers, is that Hart’s wordsmithing agility isn’t just an exercise. It’s all in the service of creating interesting, memorable characters and dropping them into a story you simply cannot put down.
Dempsey, the protagonist, is a great character. His mysterious and tragic backstory looms over the narrative like an ax waiting to drop, and when it final does, the reveal is shattering.
I won’t even risk spoiling what the plot points and all this story has to offer, but once Dempsey arrives in Tallston and begins to uncover the details of his brother’s brutal murder, a sense of dread and foreboding descends on every page.
Be forewarned: this is a scary, scary book, and the final climatic scenes will leave you breathless. But if you love stories that get your pulse racing and dump adrenaline into your bloodstream, there is so much to love within these pages.