If you happen to transverse the portion of Interstate 65 between Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky, you will be bombarded with signage advising you of the presence of Mammoth Cave. While all sorts of cottage businesses have grown up around it, with the attendant billboards (a particular favorite: a sign high atop a mountain, which proudly proclaims, "Tattoos while you wait"), the star of the show is the cave complex, arguably the largest in the world. If the turnstile numbers there ever drop, the entrepreneurs (probably the US Park Service) would be well advised to seek out Mark T. Sullivan and issue him a blank check to compose a commercial to bring back the hordes. His latest novel, LABYRINTH, demonstrates not only a love for caverns and all things subterranean, but also an uncanny ability to make the reader love them as well.
Those afflicted with claustrophobia will be gripping LABYRINTH so tightly during certain passages that they'll make new indentations in the binding. Stories involving closed in, dark places tend to do that. Sullivan, however, ratchets up the suspense wheel a notch or 10 by putting this tale of the recovery of a mysterious moon rock on a breathtaking, three-track tier. One track carries Tom Burke and his 14-year-old daughter Cricket who, amid great fanfare, are set to explore Labyrinth Cave at the behest of NASA as a prelude to the reinstitution of exploration of the Moon. The Moon's surface and the interior of Labyrinth Cave are remarkably similar. The Expedition, however, goes horribly awry when the Burkes are kidnapped by Robert Gregor, a deranged criminal who secreted a mysterious but powerful moon rock into the cave system a few years previously and is willing to do anything to get it back. The only hope for the Burkes is Tom's wife Whitney, who knows the cave system almost as well as her husband.
Whitney, a renowned cave researcher in her own right, has abandoned her profession following a horrific caving accident but is forced to return to it in order to save her husband and daughter. Her battle against her own fears and the unforgiving nature of the cave is the second track of Sullivan's storyline. The third deals with two scientists, Dr. Jeffrey Swain and his hapless but brilliant nephew, Chester Norton, as they attempt to locate both of the expedition parties and, of equal importance, the moon rock, which may be the most important source of renewable energy ever discovered. Sullivan, who continues to hone his already considerable talent in quantum leaps and bounds, keeps things moving by cutting back and forth among his three storylines at opportune times, keeping the reader guessing, enthralled, and most importantly, reading. One simply cannot ask for more than that.
Even if the closest thing to a cave you've ever personally encountered is your teenager's room, there is plenty in LABYRINTH to hold your interest. The setting, the world beneath our world, is one that Sullivan, convincingly and irrefutably, makes his own. After reading LABYRINTH it will be hard to take a step without thinking about what may be going on beneath you at any given point.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011