The Cypress House by Michael Koryta

I have come to view Michael Koryta’s supernatural/mystery stand-alone novels as a litmus test. Several friends have read all three books, and there are a variety of opinions about which gets the vote as favorite. I would love to chart where we were in our lives, and what we were responding to when we read these books. It always makes for fascinating conversation when we discuss the ins and outs of what we like about each and why it’s the best. I am in the clear minority with loving The Cypress House the most out of all the books. So whatever that might mean, there you go.

The Cypress House is about Arlen Wagner. Arlen is a worker at the Civilian Conservation Corp circa 1935. He has the burdensome talent of being able to spot when someone is about to die- he sees smoke in their eyes. On the way to the Florida Keys for a work project, Arlen looks around his railway car and notices that everyone has smoke in their eyes, but when they stop for a break he is unable to convince the men not to re-board the train. Arlen flees with the only person who heeds his warning, 19-year-old Paul Brickell.  Death, however, is not finished with them, and follows them to an old hotel on the Gulf Coast, and a woman named Rebecca Cady, who needs more help than she will accept. When they tangle with a corrupt judge, his fearsome cohorts, and a dangerous storm, it is hard to know who will make it out alive.

Koryta manages to balance chills and tension-filled suspense throughout this story of a man who has spent his life on the run, afraid of not only what he can do, but also of the barely contained guilt he feels over the death of his father. Overcoming his demons have serious ramifications in his attempts helping the love smitten Paul come to the aid of cool, collected Rebecca. Strong characterizations, rich sense of place, a balanced and integrated plot with a hint of an uneasy love triangle makes The Cypress House one of my near perfect reads of 2011. Highly Recommended.

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