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James W. Hall
Forests of the Night
Reviewed by:Terry D'Auray © 2005

St. Martin's/Minotaur
US Hardcover First
ISBN: 0-312-27180-0
341 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: January, 2005
Date Reviewed: February 15, 2005

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

A gloomy Sunday, grey, threatening rain but managing only sporadic sputters -- it's a day one is absolutely entitled to spend curled up on the couch, comforter and cats on lap, to escape within the covers of a good book. Curl up I did and except for -- well, I should, in fairness, admit to a very, very brief snooze -- I didn't uncurl till the book was done. 'Forests of the Night' is the perfect book for exactly that kind of day, a literary thriller that mixes historical horrors with contemporary ones in a story propelled by involving and believable characters. Written in smooth and savory prose, the novel mingles its weighty themes with heart-thumping action scenes and blood-chilling villainy for that hard-to-find treat, a page-turner with substance.

'Forests of the Night' begins in 1830 with the story of Tsali, a Cherokee Indian. When US troops are charged with driving the Cherokees out of their North Carolina homelands, he resists. Ultimately and selflessly, however, he surrenders and is executed. The white people got the Cherokee lands to violate and exploit; the Cherokees got the infamous "Trail of Tears", a cruel and mostly fatal relocation to the dustbowls of Oklahoma, a one-way trip to nowhere. The stage is set for the tendrils of history to reach into the present; the thematic tone is set as well -- greed, vengeance, and evil -- ah, the shameful things we do!

Jumping quickly to present-day Miami, Hall introduces Florida cop Charlotte Monroe, her successful defense-attorney husband Parker and their schizophrenic teen-age daughter Gracey. Charlotte is uniquely gifted in the art of reading facial expressions, of observing the subtle and fleeting twitches and tremors that tell or foretell truths that words often fail to reveal. Returning home from work one night, Charlotte finds her husband and daughter engaged in conversation with Cherokee Jacob Bright Sky Panther, whose face she recognizes from the FBI's ten-most-wanted list. While the FBI fumbles a near-gimme capture, Panther escapes with Gracey in tow back to North Carolina. Charlotte and Parker set off to rescue their daughter; the FBI sets off to rescue their pride while rounding up all manner of bad guys (though it gets harder and harder to tell exactly who the bad guys are); and all arrive in North Carolina where the venomous seeds of history, having taken firm root, will now poison those in the present.

Hall's plot is ambitious, a convoluted and complex convergence of bank bombings, car chases and gun fire with killer poodles, three-way dialogues between Steve Spielberg, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, genetic aberration (autism, mental retardation, fragile X), and lots of Cherokee history. His cast of characters is equally expansive, with FBI agents, local North Carolinians, Cherokee Indians (in whole or in part), and family friends with murky pasts rounding out the Monroe/Panther focus. It takes Hall's sure and experienced hand to keep so much action among so many characters from becoming too much, too many and too over-the-top.

Borrowing from the Cherokee legacy of according women an importance equal to men, Hall puts Charlotte at the center of the novel and develops her as an intelligent, strong, independent thinker with fierce passions and a feral protectiveness towards her daughter. Charlotte and the other finely drawn female characters exhibit bravery in response to circumstance that anchor the themes of the narrative in sensibility as well as action.

Hall is a lyrical writer, blending mesmerizing descriptions of the North Carolina Mountains with intense expositions of the passions and poisons that drive his characters. 'Forests of the Night' draws its title from William Blake's poem 'Tyger, Tyger' and Hall's prose frequently hits poetic notes worthy of his muse. All in all, 'Forests of the Night' is a great read - an intense and gripping story seeped in history and atmosphere - exceptionally well told.

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