Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 01-22-2004
280 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 04-16-04
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004
Writing about writers is a very dangerous business. Blake Crouch finds an entertaining method of making it even more dangerous in 'Desert Places'. There's no serious art going on here; at least not in the life of the writer about whom Crouch is writing. Andrew Thomas writes thrillers with titles like 'Blue Murder' or 'The Scorcher'. He's all business and no nonsense. So is Blake Crouch, but he's considerably more artful than the writer he describes. 'Desert Places' brings art and innovation to aspects of the novel where it's usually in short supply. We all expect a suspense novel to surprise us. But Crouch's novel manages to do so in some novel ways, and to keep up a positively blistering pace without ever seeming forced.
The setup is clever and simple. Andrew Thomas is getting ready to tour to support his new novel. He writes suspense. He walks out to the mailbox, where he finds a note in an un-mailed envelope. The note informs him that there's a woman's body buried on his property, and that evidence will ensure that he's charged with and convicted for the murder. In the pocket of the woman's jeans there's a phone number that he's to call by the following morning, or else the cops will be tipped and life as he knows it is over. Thomas at first writes off the note as the work of a particularly daffy fan. But doubts linger. He goes to the appointed spot, digs up the body and life as he knew it until that moment is indeed over.
And that's all by page 7.
Crouch's accomplishment in 'Desert Places' is multilayered. He's quite adept at creating suspense. This isn't as easy as it sounds, but Crouch makes it look easy, while providing some genuinely breathless thrills. On almost every other page, Crouch presents the reader with what seems like a book-ending scenario. And he cleverly, seamlessly, easily skips past them and takes the reader to a new place or a new level. He twists effortlessly out of every hole he and his characters dig. Those holes are deep and seemingly inescapable, but Crouch and his characters slip away as naturally as a crocodile slips into the water to snatch an unwary swimmer.
Crouch also excels at writing prose with just a whiff of atmosphere. His writing is easy and transparent, but has just enough character to keep it from being bland or mechanical. There's a hint of music behind the words, but he's wise enough not to let the song take over the story. He can be evocative when it helps, and can back off when it helps. There's a thoroughly natural and professional sense of control in the writing.
Crouch does this in spite of some plot and character situations that have seen better days. 'Desert Places' is a very curious brew in this regard. He's written an original-feeling serial killer novel that plunges into the heart of several cliché situations without fear. Sometimes the old tropes work and sometimes they get in the way. There's a lot of baggage that comes with the classic turns and Crouch on occasion finds himself lugging that baggage along. More often than not, he manages to up the ante so quickly we don't really care, but aficionados of the genre will find some of the situations overly familiar until Crouch speeds past them.
Characterization is key in any novel and more so in a serial killer novel. Crouch does well by his characters in 'Desert Places', especially in terms of the all-important turning of the tables. All too often a novel of terror or crime fiction depends on simply putting a character in danger and then having them escape the danger through a combination of luck and cunning. 'Desert Places' admirably puts the people on the platter and all of the characters are forced to face a reality that won't allow them to escape untouched.
Readers should definitely be warned that 'Desert Places' is dark, horrific, violent and disturbing. If you are at all squeamish, this is a novel to avoid. Now, while lots of the novel is disturbing, the disturbing bits are a mixed bag. Sometimes they're chillingly effective and others they're merely ugly. It's all going to scare the living daylights out of you, but some of it will be done with a classy frisson of terror, while at other times, Crouch follows the advice of Stephen King and simply "goes for the gross-out". Even then, it's done in the name of character building, or, more accurately, character destroying. There's an awful lot of violence, but none of it is pointless. You might not like the violence and you might like the point even less, but nothing happens without a reason.
'Desert Places' offers an unusual mix of horror, psychological character study and fast-paced crime fiction. Crouch is at his best when he's twisting the plot about like a kid rippling a ribbon in the wind. The changes happen so quickly it all seems perfectly real, a nightmare unfolding with relentless logic and unrepentant terror. One of the hallmarks of an effective author of terrorizing fiction is the ability to create a believable "anything can happen" feel. Crouch has that in spades. His first novel has more than enough going for it to make the reader wish that the promised sequel was already on the shelves. 'Desert Places' is an intriguing patch of pitch black in the fictional landscape.