Last Words sucks us down into the proverbial rabbit hole on page one with its unrelenting carnivalesque smoke and mirrors. Four-hundred and twenty pages later we're belched out in a whoosh, grasping for some reality.
The story shows how truthfulness is hard to come by in the Southern Indiana town of Garrison. It exemplifies privilege and notarizes the exactness of small, insular places — in this case, a town emerging above a network of caves. They don't want probing, above or below ground, even though one of those caves is the setting for an unsolved mystery.
The book's well-drawn characters are awfully close to the bone of an actual populace. Mark Novak, a seductively flawed hero thrust into a quest of Athenian proportions by his boss, is instructed to go, take a look, file a report and come home fast. He is asked to scope out a low-profile Midwest cold case and determine if it's remotely worthy of a high profile investigation by a Florida-based firm dedicated to speaking for the wrongfully accused on death rows across the nation. Novak feels everyone is implicated and that no one is trustworthy.
An unsettled vibe is a key element throughout Michael Koryta's newest detective novel. I've somehow missed reading his previous books. It doesn't matter — Last Words stands on its own as a work by a storyteller of consequence.
Ultimately it's the issue of asking the key question, which is not what happened, not how it happened, but WHY. That's the wizardry of Koryta. Without telling us we should care, be involved, it happens; we find ourselves dealing with loss, family, shame, justice, closed-mindedness, memory (and loss thereof), revelations, last words — that's the sticking point, by the way, the burden of "last words" in any parting.
With his meticulous writing in Last Words, Koryta brings the same kind of attention to Southern Indiana and its caves, caverns and sinkholes that Larry D. Sweazy brings to the rich farmland of northern Indiana in The Devil's Bones and Ronald Tierney brings to Indianapolis in his Deets Shanahan series. How does place — its geographic connotations — shape us individually and as a community? Koryta gives us a picture of his protagonist being shaped by the Plains states, the Southwest and Florida's Gulf Coast.
Yet on page 393 we find an anthem to the place where the glacier stopped 2,000 years ago, leaving a landscape disparate from the rest of the state. "[I]t's actually a hell of a nice little town," says one character in the work. "I've always enjoyed it. Haven't enjoyed all the people, and that's more than mutual, but I like the place. Growing up, kids were always talking about getting out of here. For what? I'd say....Tell you something that makes me happy — cutting grass and plowing snow. You can see your work. See the mess that was there before you, and how nice and clean it is when you're done. How orderly."
That's something to chew on.
Koryta's Bloomington home, and what inspired Last Words
This is Koryta's first book set in Indiana in the last five years, marking it what he calls a "return to his roots." We spoke with him about the novel's origins.
NUVO: What place inspired this book?
Michael Koryta: That goes all the way back to childhood. I grew up Bloomington. I grew up outside of town ... I would hear stories from older neighbors. One in particular was ... an elderly gentleman who owns the farm closest to us, about the caves that had once existed and people actually lived in them ... From that point on I had an interest in the caves in Indiana.
NUVO: You were a private detective for a while, correct?
Koryta: Yes, until So Cold the River was published in 2010 that was my full-time job. I started as an intern before I had my driver's license. It was my day job until I was able to support myself strictly from writing.
NUVO: Is detective work as dramatic as it sounds?
Koryta: It has some absolutely fascinating days. But that is surrounded with monotonous and tedious days. ... I am trying to think of a way to describe how boring sitting in a surveillance car for 12 hours watching nothing is. I guess that speaks for itself (laughs).
NUVO: Did your time as a detective play a big role in this book?
Koryta: The idea of [of Last Words] came directly from a case I worked on. We worked with a group called the Innocence Project on a death penalty defense case. Actually, the client won exhonoration after spending a decade in prison. Working on that case was one of the most fascinating cases I have ever worked on, but the idea of the Innocence Project ... is such a cool structure and would lend itself nicely to a fictional series. ... that case is where the essence of Last Words and the character of Mark Novak really came from.