Desert Places probes dark spaces

Desert Places: A Novel of Terrob

By Black Crouch

Thomas Dunne Books

280 pages

When crime writer Andrew Thomas receives a letter in his mailbox telling him there’s a dead body buried in his back yard – and the body has his blood on it – readers can expect a stirring tale. Initially, Thomas brushes off the stunning declaration as a joke from a whacked-out fan. But that nagging “what-if” feeling that people often experience gets the better of him. Most people would call the cops if something like this happened. Yet, since Thomas is accustomed to freaky plotlines, he bypasses alerting the authorities and digs in the dirt.

To his surprise and dismay, he finds the body. It isn’t just any body. It’s Rita Jones, a dead school teacher whose disappearance was highly publicized in Thomas’ town. Thus begins a fast-paced thriller in Durango writer Blake Crouch’s debut novel, Desert Places. Touted as a “novel of terror,” the story is one of insanity, jealousy and murder that is often violent and gory.

Thomas follows the letter’s instruction to find the paper in the body’s pocket and call the number. When he does, he enters a sort of twilight zone that only he could write about. He bags his book tour for his new crime story. He flies to

Maria’s Bookshop,
960 Main Ave., will host
a talk and book signing
with Blake Crouch on
Thursday, May 6, at 6
p.m. Crouch lives in
Durango, where he is at
work on the sequel to
Desert Places.

Denver and is soon whisked to a remote cabin in Wyoming (a location that is really more prairie than desert), where he ends up a hostage to someone who feeds him salmon, veal and lobster, lets him drink wine and listen to jazz. He also forces him to read classic philosophical texts like Machiavelli’s The Prince – a tome describing the way a prince may gain and maintain his power. Machiavelli’s ideal prince, by the way, is an amoral and calculating power hog. The texts – all of which figure in murder – are clues about Thomas’ subjugator. Hardly an unbearable situation it seems.

Yet Thomas’ captor, Orson, is a diabolical sicko whose childhood, readers learn toward the end of the book, traumatized him so gravely that it turned him murderous. His first killing was nothing if not nonchalant. Each one thereafter became psychologically easier, partly because killing sexually gratifies Orson. He videotapes the acts, adding them to his extensive collection. Crouch never addresses why Orson doesn’t get caught or what he does with the bodies. Readers only learn that he cuts out their hearts, which he eventually boxes together and sends to the White House.

Within days of captivity, Orson forces Thomas to also kill. He does, but only to keep from getting killed himself.

Like most horror stories, Desert Places requires readers to willingly suspend their instincts to disbelieve. Crouch provides enough far-out sketches about Thomas and the trouble he’s in to compel readers to carry on with the book. Indeed, the story is so good in the first half of the book that even readers who aren’t drawn to psychological cat-and-mouse-game plots won’t be able to put it down. In the first seven pages alone, there are enough unexplained actions by Thomas himself that Crouch cleverly sets up sufficient suspense.

Crouch is also good at writing prose. He creates vivid scenes and glib dialog that is neither forced nor tedious. Crouch’s talent shines best when Thomas suffers through his captivity. The irony that Thomas endures an experience much like the ones he makes money writing about it can hardly be lost on anyone. Fortunately, Crouch doesn’t exaggerate the irony by being moralistic (though the antagonist of his story is sometimes guilty of such). Perhaps that’s because there’s nothing good to say about butchery.

Unfortunately, Crouch is guilty at times of too much gratuitous grossness, if you will. Some dialogues are useless – as if Crouch felt he needed to turn up the ick factor in order for Desert Places to meet the demands of its subtitle. It’s too bad.

Between that and the fact that the story seems to lose its initial level of excitement about two-thirds of the way through, it makes Crouch’s first attempt a wee bit weaker than it could be. The last bit of the book ends up too clichE9d; the explanations for characters’ actions and the childhood flashbacks seem more like filler than necessity.

Still, readers shouldn’t shy away. Newbie writer Crouch has something going on. His story has enough suspense, hedonism and concupiscence to keep readers turning the pages. Will it scare readers into keeping their lights on at night as the book promises? No. But it will shake your confidence in humanity.







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