Back in 1989 Chambers High School in northeastern Ohio won state. That was also the year Marie Austin was murdered. Her brothers, senior star fullback Adam and freshman second string quarterback Kent, never fully recovered from the brutal loss. Today, as Kent, now head coach of Chambers, is wrapping up an undefeated regular season and marching towards state for the first time since that year, the girlfriend of his best receiver is murdered, sending the town reeling all over again. Adam, now working as a bail bondsman and still feeling guilt over his refusal to give Marie a ride home all those years, decides to take on the case pro bono, vowing to the girl’s mother that when he catches the son of a bitch he’ll make sure he’s put down like a dog. Thing is, turns out Adam is not the brother whose attention the killer was hoping to get…
I’ve been missing out on Michael Koryta’s work for a couple years now as the guy’s been off doing horror novels. I’m sure they’re good and all but I’m a slave to the crime genre, sorry to say (though not really all that sorry), and, you know, they looked really fucking long. I’ve been a fan of all his thrillers, from the Lincoln Perry PI series to his fantastic standalone Envy the Night, and when I saw that he had a book coming out with no spooky ghosts or toothy beasties in sight I was up for it something terrible. But Jesus Christ was I not prepared for how ambitious and beautifully handled The Prophet ended up being.
Koryta’s love of Dennis Lehane is far from a secret, the style and overall arc of his PI series bearing some resemblance to Lehane’s own Patrick Kenzie series being the easiest comparison to make, but for a while there he seemed to be (far as I know as a dude who hasn’t read his last three books) Stephen King-ing it up with his thoughtful, doorstoppish supernatural novels. With his return to crime, though, Koryta has given us his Mystic River, and trust the Nerd when he swears ain’t reaching too hard to make such a bold fucking claim.
With The Prophet Koryta has crafted a thoughtful, tragic thriller of no small amount of ambition and heart. He knows his failed industrial town of Chambers, Ohio inside and out, giving us a community that has little to look forward to outside of the Friday night game (Ever see that doc Go Tigers? Well, you should.) One brother is a devout family man and Christian who tries to instill in his players the tools to be better boys and hopefully, eventually, better men. The other is a dogged pursuer of his court date skippers who drinks too much, is dating a woman married to a convict and often speaks to his sister in her old room which he has restored to look the way it did when she died.
Kent keeps trying to outrun the past while, trying to get a state championship that he can feel good about instead of just having sat on the bench through, while Adam revels in his former glory and life-defining tragedy. The two have long been estranged, Adam cutting off ties when he heard his brother sat down with their sister’s killer and forgave him in prison, but the new murder forces them back together, reopening old wounds but also reaching something like healing as well.
To get too far into the actual specifics of the mystery at the story’s center would spoil some major surprises (the book also takes its time unveiling many of the particulars) but lemme assure you all that that shit is handled ridiculously well, Koryta making the thriller elements go down smoothly in a book that’s more about characters and setting. The plot never gets too “big” for the wonderfully realized world he has created while still somehow letting it rip in the suspense and tension departments something fucking fierce. And when the ending comes around, well, let’s just say if the room doesn’t start to feel a little dusty then you’re a stronger man than me – uhh, I mean you’re a better housekeeper than me. Yeah, that’s it…
Not to stray too far into the realm of the cheesy-ass critic but The Prophet really kinda is the perfect fall book (just as his Envy the Night is the perfect cabin read – not to be confused with a *shudders* “beach read”), a novel that captures the feeling of chilly gray days and cold nights with your ass slowly warming up a seat in the bleachers. Even if high school football ain’t exactly your bag, The Prophet will still make you stand up and cheer! (How’s that for some Gene Shalit-tastic reviewifyng?)