John Hart made a superb debut in 2006 with THE KING OF LIES, a novel that was by turns a mystery, a thriller and a psychological study. DOWN RIVER, his sophomore effort, is equally as impressive, assembling a cast of unforgettable characters in a story of passion, greed and deception.
DOWN RIVER returns to Rowan County, North Carolina, the situs of THE KING OF LIES. Hart’s setting is more rural this time, though emotions run just as high and deceit runs just as deep. The book centers on Adam Chase, the son of an extremely wealthy landowner who refuses to sell the 1,400-acre family farm to developers, despite intense pressure from the community. Five years prior to the events in DOWN RIVER, Chase had been tried for and acquitted of the murder of a teenager in Rowan County, a death that many continue to hold him responsible for. Indeed, his own stepmother testified against him at the trial. Following his acquittal, Chase fled to New York, leaving behind his embittered father as well as Robin Alexander, the love of his life and one of his few steadfast supporters.
In the present, Chase has reluctantly come back to Rowan County at the cryptic request of boyhood friend Danny Faith. His return exacerbates the emotional maelstrom that surrounds his family. There are many, including the local sheriff, who feel that he is nothing but a murderer who escaped justice, and his presence merely increases the resentment that many already feel toward the steadfast refusal of Chase’s father to sell the property. When another murder occurs in Chase’s proximity, it seems as if he either brings a curse with him or he has killed --- again.
This latest death touches off a slow unraveling of the Chase family secrets, buried in a series of deceitful acts initiated with good intentions but tainted by evil. Before the events of the book have come to an end, Chase will learn things about his family --- and himself --- that in some ways would be better left unknown yet in other ways would give him the opportunity to face his future unencumbered.
Hart’s work invokes the spirit of the best of southern literature. DOWN RIVER puts readers in the mind of topics explored by Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, with a contemporary vision and edge that is memorable and haunting. Hart is a deep and strong talent whose future offerings will be greatly anticipated and welcomed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 25, 2011