There are a lot of reasons why I move heaven and earth to get hold of a Philip McLaren book when I hear there's a new one in the offing. Firstly, as yo
Okay, so before we go too much further SO COLD THE RIVER came with a media release that flagged it as, amongst other things an "explosive thriller" and "supernatural horror". Not exactly a recipe for my perfect book. Having said that, there have been plenty of reading examples in my recent past that make me aware that my "recipe" is a very fluid thing.
Eric Shaw is down and out. A disgraced movie maker, separated from his wife, he's in Chicago making "life portraits" for people on video - think weddings, parties, and funerals. During one of these funerals, Shaw is approached by Alyssa who wants him to make a documentary of the life of her father-in-law Campbell Bradford. The family knows very little about the billionaire head of the family, except that his hometown is West Baden in Indiana. Alyssa also hands over a very old bottle of Pluto Water which Campbell has held onto for many years, tying him to not just that small town, but a large part of its own history. This small, mysterious, smelly, murky water bottle is the key to Shaw going to West Baden and somewhere a whole lot stranger.
The language used in SO COLD THE RIVER was quite beautiful in places, the basic bones of story intriguing. An elderly, private man and what happened to him, and this small town over all those years. The author is also doing something that I really like with dialogue: it's crisp, pointed, realistic. There's also the sense of pace and suspense that you want from a first class thriller. They come with an extremely hefty dose of the supernatural, the paranormal. It is absolutely intrinsic to the way that the story unfolds and is told. Undoubtedly Michael Koryta is a very good writer, as I stayed with this book even as I found this increasingly alternative reality more and more unconvincing.
Unfortunately, the supernatural elements were simply laid on so thick that suspension of my disbelief would have required engineering greater than the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge. I'm also not sure I understand the inclusion of horror in the definitions, as there didn't seem to be many of the standard elements I expect with that genre - so if you're normally nervous of that, there's not a lot that should concern you about that.
Undoubtedly this is a book for readers with a higher tolerance for the supernatural elements being a core component of the story. Perhaps that's the difference between SO COLD IS THE RIVER and other books that I've read and enjoyed recently. The supernatural in SO COLD IS THE RIVER is an intrinsic part of the way that this story unfolds - there's no getting around it, there's no balancing of a fantasy and reality. To be fair there's no attempt, no pretence, an overt declaration that this fantastical series of events is the point of the book. Because of that it's most likely a book for people who really like fantasy, the fantastical.. the supernatural. It's likely to also be a book for dedicated fans of Michael Koryta's writing. For the rest of us, well I've not had the pleasure of reading any of Kortya's "straight" crime fiction but I'm going to have to rectify that.
u can probably pick from the synopsis above, there's a very dry, understated wit in McLaren's story-telling style. He's also writing about his own people, in a way that's both affectionate and exasperated. He's also frequently very very pointed about the difficulties Aboriginal people in Australia face on a daily basis.
What McLaren is doing in MURDER IN UTOPIA is really interesting. He runs a parallel story of a young Aboriginal girl in Australia, against a disgraced New York doctor both of whom collide in Utopia. McLaren hastens to add this is not a book about the real Utopia - rather it's a fictional setting for his book, stating "I found the irony irresistible: imagine naming a place Utopia, a place so impoverished, so desolate."
The narrative moves forward bringing Jack Nugent to outback Australia and a community in need of medical services, as well as a community struggling against so many issues - alcohol, violence, neglect, poor housing, tensions with authorities. All of these are told from both points of view - from the American, doctor, outsider with alcohol problems of his own, and from people within the community. A ritual killing becomes a catalyst for people to adjust their views and for the depth of the problems in the community to be dragged into the daylight.
The structure of this book really works well, and whilst it is obvious that there is a lot of opinions and observations of reality being voiced within the narrative, fair enough. In fact it's a privilege to read a fictional story addressing real-life issues in an Aboriginal voice, and the occasional stridency or maybe sledge-hammer adjustment of plot to make a point seemed perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
Not a book for readers looking just for "pure entertainment" MURDER IN UTOPIA is a book for readers that want to learn something about issues we should be more aware of, written by somebody who obviously knows.