This is intended to be the first in an occasional series on writers I admire. I’m going to start with possibly my favourite novelist, surprisingly little known in the UK, American writer Thomas H Cook.
I first came across Cook with a random pick from a library shelf, on the look-out for something different. I liked it, I wanted more and I’ve now read nearly all of Cook’s output. There are no duds.
If a label is needed then Cook is a crime writer. There is always a crime. The crime is a fulcrum about which lives pivot. There is before and after where a moment in time changes lives forever.
Cook is a stylist with a very strong, distinctive voice. Much use is made of flashbacks, often multiple flashbacks. There is often a twist in the tail but frequently not a conventional one.
I’ll briefly describe two of my favourite novels and mention one or two others. There are no spoilers. Plot points are no more than you would glean from the cover blurb.
Instruments of Night. Say those words again. Repeat. If you read this novel you’ll never speak them again without a shiver. The protagonist is an author. A moderately successful one with a mid-list career writing a series about a serial killer. But now the words don’t come and he wonders if his career is over. We soon learn that his problems stem from childhood trauma when he witnessed the brutal murder of his little sister in a farm shed. This shed becomes a motif throughout the story. We first see it in the distance on an idyllic summer day, almost hidden in a field of golden corn. Each time it appears it looms closer and clearer and darker until at last we stand at the threshold, until at last we enter the shed and stand beside that little boy and observe what really happened all those years ago.
But there are many more surprises along the way as the author is hired to use his expertise to investigate another murder.
In part the novel is told in a series of multiple layered flashbacks (flashback within flashback within flashback). It could be confusing but in Cook’s capable hands all is clear. For any author this is a master class in the use of this technique.
The Fate of Katherine Carr is a newer and quite different novel. Powerful and enigmatic, one reviewer called it an essay on the redemptive quality of revenge.
It starts with a prologue; a cryptic and strangely unsettling few pages as the narrator and Mr Mayawati drift down an unnamed river in an unnamed country to an unknown destination. I read it quickly and was relieved to get onto chapter one and the ‘real’ story. Just as a taster the prologue starts – “They strike at heat, she said” which immediately raises the questions who are they, why are they striking and who is she? Three questions from six words. We might assume she is the eponymous Katherine Carr, perhaps, but we are given no answers. So I dismissed the prologue as an aberration.
The story itself is wonderful as a damaged journalist and a bed-bound young girl suffering from the early ageing disease progeria investigate the mysterious disappearance of Katherine Carr.
Be warned, a failing young girl, an incurable disease, it’s no spoiler to say that she is going to die. And she does, in a scene poignant yet unsentimental; unflinching and powerful – tissues required. Here Cook’s descriptive powers are at their peak and reliving this scene now brings tears for me.
It’s difficult to say more without giving something away but the story now changes direction in a potentially mystical way. The end is surprising and just a little odd. I was left with the feeling of having read something wonderful yet at the same time not having quite ‘got’ it. I turned to some on-line reviews of the book which were mixed but I was struck by one comment which said after reading this book you must go back and read the prologue again. Good advice. I did – and all was clear. Far from being an aberration the prologue is a minor masterpiece, every word calculated and crafted to give the desired effect and yes the whole meaning of the story is instantly clear. I’ve read that beautiful mysterious prologue many times – superb writing. In fact thinking about it now I believe Cook has come up with, instead of the twist in the tail, possibly the first twist in the head story. Well, the first for me.
Talking about twists I have to mention Breakheart Hill.
Two old-timers sit reminiscing on a porch in the cool of an evening. We flash back to their younger years and in typical Cook fashion the story is told entirely in flashback. It ends, a satisfying if rather sad tale of love and loss. The two friends shake hands and one leaves in his car and drives to the edge of town where he parks by an anonymous house and enters the sitting room. Then in the last few sentences we are presented with the biggest twist I’ve ever come across in fiction. Something that the reader had assumed was self-evident was not true. OK, I guess that could be the definition of a twist but this one is much, much more. I might say I finished this book in bed and was so stunned by this turn around that I sat up with a gasp, prompting a ‘what’s wrong with you?’ from my wife. If you were shocked at the twist in I Let You Go you’ll love this.
I’ll just mention one more or rather I won’t as in this novel we only learn in the last page that we have been listening to an unreliable narrator. Obviously I can’t mention the title. Wonderful and humorous too.
So that’s my take on Thomas H Cook, currently my favourite living writer. I’ll admit a couple of his recent books have fallen flat for me at least, but even at this Cook stands head and shoulders above many of the authors I see in the best seller lists. If you haven’t read him then go to it; there’s a wonderful world waiting for you. I envy you.