We all have something that creeps us out. My rather conventional thing is snakes of any description. You might think after living in Georgia for a decade and having had several unintentional close encounters of the serpent kind that those irrational fears would have gone away but they remain deep-rooted. That is why the opening image of this book absolutely terrified me. If you share my fear you may want to skip the next paragraph.
Dark River Rising begins with the body of a big-time drug dealer being discovered in a disused warehouse. It is tied upside down, its fingers are crushed and there are recent signs of surgery visible on the corpse’s stomach. The reason for those cuts, and for the sleepless night I will likely endure tonight, is that a living emerald boa snake has been sewn inside the victim while they were still alive. Thankfully this turns out to be a very small part of the case.
While the local Police start to interview witnesses and compile their list of suspects, the case catches the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency who recognize that gross snake-move as a calling card of a major drug kingpin south of the border. One agent is particularly worried that this is a sign that two cartels will begin aggressively competing with each other in Louisiana and he gets in touch with Wallace, the lead investigator on the case, to ask to meet with her and share information.
Wallace and Mason have different objectives and at times gently spar about issues of jurisdiction which I always enjoy – this is one of my favorite tropes of the American crime novel. Wallace is focused on the homicide and wants to be clear that this is her case while Mason would prefer to use federal resources to handle aspects of the investigation. Ultimately the pair get on well though and establish a solid working relationship with some romantic overtones, though those moments are kept in the background for almost all of the novel.
Wallace is undoubtedly the lead character however, getting the most to do and a much more detailed back story. In the course of the novel we encounter her family, learn about a tragedy that still affects her years later and meet her mentor and partner who is on an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a medical issue. I found her to be a likeable protagonist and appreciated that Johns balances the darker aspects of her thinking with lighter aspects of her character.
While most of the novel follows the actions of Wallace and Mason, there are occasional interludes presented from the killer’s point of view. At times these directly contradict some evidence or theory that the Police have gathered, helping the reader connect things together, explaining an action they have taken or to eliminate a suspect from consideration.
Given this exposure to the killer’s psychology I toyed with labeling this an inverted mystery but stopped myself based on how little of the novel is in that format. I did find those sections of the novel to be very effective though and I was glad of the chance to get to understand the killer’s actions a little better.
That these sections do not help the reader much in identifying the killer and the reasons for their actions reflects that this is not really a puzzle mystery but rather would be better described as a thriller. Certainly I do not think that a reader could deduce the identity of the killer before it is revealed though I suppose they might be able to work out the motive and what the victim was up to before the detective works it out. I rather enjoyed the approach taken here and found that the little timestamps at the start of each chapter were a nice touch both to give a sense of the passage of time and also to help build some tension as time seems to run out.
I found the case itself to be quite intriguing and will admit to not guessing the murderer’s identity at all. I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen and devoured the book in just two sittings. For the most part I was very satisfied, though there are a few story threads that just seem to get forgotten or at least never completely resolved. For the most part though the case makes sense and I enjoyed watching our heroes solve it.
On the downside, there are a few moments where the dialogue didn’t quite ring true to me. I also felt that though the case takes several fascinating twists and turns, the ending seemed a little too low-key after some of the craziness that had preceded it.
Overall, I really did enjoy Dark River Rising. I don’t think it quite did enough to grab my January Book of the Month award but it certainly deserves to be in the conversation. There are some fun ideas here and I felt that were this to be the fist in a series it shows a lot of potential. I did find myself hoping that Johns may follow it up with another adventure for Wallace or Mason. As debuts go, this was very promising and I will look forward to seeing what Roger Johns has in store for us next.