Review

Desert Places

by Blake Crouch



Our conscious minds erect shields to protect us from thinking about
the "creepy-crawly" evils. Then the night comes, and nightmares
surface. In DESERT PLACE, Blake Crouch, a writer new to the horror
genre, does a fine job exploring the unthinkable acts perpetrated
by a man-monster and the man he forces to help him.

Andrew Thomas is a successful mystery writer who lives in a "glass
house," on an isolated parcel of land in a quiet lakefront
neighborhood in North Carolina. As the book opens, he has just
completed the final touches on his newest novel. He is ecstatic
about his work, his life, his success and his place in the world.
He is a happy man; he is a contented man; he is a man who has
absolutely no reason whatsoever to expect the catastrophe about to
befall him.

"My final edits of the new … manuscript would be finished
tomorrow. I was tired, but my new thriller … would be on
bookshelves within the week. I savored the exhaustion that followed
a full day of work … [and] shut down the computer. I went
outside and walked … toward the mailbox. For once, [it] was
not overflowing. Two envelopes lay inside, … [one] a bill,
the other blank except for my address typed on the outside …
there was no stamp, and upon slicing it open, I extracted a single
piece of paper … in the center of the page, one paragraph had
been typed in black ink:

Greetings. There is a body buried on your property, covered in
your blood. The … lady is Rita Jones … [the] missing
schoolteacher [whose face is all over the news.] In her jeans
pocket [is] a slip of paper with a phone number … you have
one day to call. If I have not heard from you by 8:00 P.M. tomorrow
…the Charlotte Police Department will receive a call …
[telling] them Rita Jones is buried on Andrew Thomas's …
property, how he killed her, and where the murder weapon can be
found in his house. (I do believe a paring knife is missing from
your kitchen.")

The rest of the message includes specific directions to the grave
and a warning that he should expect a phone call in a few hours
… if he doesn't comply with these demands his tormentor will
carry out his diabolical plan to destroy the writer.

At first Andrew decides someone is just trying to scare him; after
all, he gets all kinds of kinky fan mail from his readers. As a
writer of mystery/thrillers he is responsible for creating all
kinds of monster-killers in his books and movies. Then, he realizes
a paring knife really is missing from his cutlery set and Rita
Jones is a teacher who recently disappeared without a trace. Could
it be true that someone has invaded his world and set him up as a
murderer? The kind of imagination Andrew possesses has made him a
gifted and popular storyteller, but it also works overtime in his
personal life.

Against his better judgment, Thomas follows the shoreline until he
sees a miniature red flag. He falls to his knees and digs. His
fingers touch flesh --- a corpse that's been eviscerated, a dead
woman with her heart removed.

After he makes his way back to his house, he waits for the promised
phone call. When it arrives, he is told, "You'll receive a plane
ticket in the mail. Take the flight. Pack clothes, toiletries,
nothing else…" Andrew tells his caller he will be on the
plane, destination Denver.

In quick succession he is met at the airport and driven in a
limousine to a run-down motel, where his driver hands him another
anonymous envelope. This time the typed note says:

"Get a room and pay cash for it so you can check in under the
name Randy Snider. Be packed and ready to go at 6:00 A. M.
tomorrow."

He does as he is told. The next thing he knows, he's being
handcuffed … his "feet bound with thick rope, and an aching
thirst. This will all be over soon" is all he hears before he feels
the pin prick of a needle.

When he surfaces from his hallucinatory dreams, he is alone in a
room. For him time becomes an abstract concept. Without a watch and
able only to distinguish daylight from darkness, Andrew moves with
dejected, terrified slowness despite his heightened awareness of
sounds and smell. He hears blasting jazz: "Jimmy Cobb playing 'All
Blues,' a moody blues form piece in 6/8, off the 1959 album 'Kind
of Blue.'" As his mind travels back more than twenty years to
rhythms he had not heard in decades, he is shocked by a woman's
scream...

In DESERT PLACES, Blake Crouch raises so many questions that to say
this is merely a "horror" story or a suspense/thriller is to weaken
the psychological and sociological issues he raises. What happens
to a well-adjusted, successful, confident, satisfied and happy
person who is suddenly thrust into a blood-washed hell, created by
someone he knows well --- even if he has not seen him for more than
two decades?

This is the conundrum of the plot of DESERT PLACES. As a first
novel it is daring and certainly pushes many "Hannibal Lecter"
buttons. Unfortunately, at times it is really too far-fetched and
not believable. On the other hand, when it takes readers into the
psychotic world of "serial killer as mentor," the twists and turns
of the twin psyches become too compelling to ignore. Blake Crouch
has made an impressive entrance. His potential to soar is waiting
to be honed. Enjoy!

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 21, 2011

Desert Places
by Blake Crouch

  • Publication Date: December 28, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312934785
  • ISBN-13: 9780312934781