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Hard-hitting literary mystery-thriller unsettling

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The Burn Palace

By Stephen Dobyns

Blue Rider Press, 464 pages, $28.50

CREEPY New England small town, check. Uncomfortably revealing descriptions of every character no matter how minor, check. A boy with special talents and a brilliant imagination, check. An angst-ridden and unshaven middle-aged hero, check.

By outward appearances this could be a Stephen King novel. But New England novelist and poet Stephen Dobyns' The Burn Palace is not horror; it is a hard-hitting literary mystery-thriller.

Unsettling from the start, Dobyns' first novel in 13 years follows what seems to be an East Coast American literary tradition: an idyllic community is torn apart by mysterious occurrences and paranoia. Tiny, historic Brewster, R.I. (located conveniently on the edge of a swamp and a coyote-filled forest), explodes with terror when the newborn baby of a teenage mother disappears from the local hospital's maternity ward under the nose of a nurse who was off dallying with a doctor.

A pet corn snake stolen from a local boy is found in the crib, triggering a police investigation and a wildfire spread of gossip throughout the community. The boy, Hercel McGarty, is a self-assured 10-year-old with special gifts and an imagination who must square off against his abusive stepfather to survive.

Meanwhile, the grizzled detective uncovers the town's darkest secrets during his investigation that leads him constantly back towards the town crematorium, known irreverently as "the burn palace."

A prolific and award-winning author and former creative writing professor with 16 poetry collections, 12 novels and a 10-volume mystery series to his name, Dobyns has a distinctive style.

Sardonic tone

Despite tempting initial comparisons to King and the late legendary American writer John Updike, Dobyns' gritty, detail-filled narrative moves at a different pace from King's smooth-flowing storytelling.

The Burn Palace eschews the poetic nuance and wit of Updike's The Witches of Eastwick. Dobyns sets a darker, harshly sardonic tone, moving his characters through the story like a master chess player. His pawns break into cold sweats as coyotes emerge from Wiccan-filled woods to terrorize them, or as vigilante citizens attack suspected neighbours.

Fear drives this novel, but cleverly placed red herrings keep readers guessing as to the mystery's outcome.

Dobyns puts much care in describing each character -- and there are many. On one hand, the revelation of everyone's dirty little secrets makes the community come alive with all its activity. Knowing details about each person clouds the reader-detective's mind to distract from who might be the real culprits.

The fallout effect of this attentive character portraiture is that the action slows down, giving the novel a sprawling, indulgent feel. Few of the characters are genuinely likable, although some are diamonds in the rough.

State police detective Woody Potter is the exhausted, too-experienced hero who cares too much, works too hard and saves the day. Bobby Anderson is his best friend and stereotypical cool black cop who drives a fancy sports car but goes home to a stable family of a wife and two kids.

Jill Franklin is the attractive single mother and journalist digging up dirt for the local newspaper. She provides an obligatory love interest for lonely Woody, who is so married to his work that his ex-fiancée left him emotionally destitute. Irritatingly, the one sex scene squeezed into this gruesome murder-riddled thriller is a graceless and perfunctory male fantasy.

Despite his grim portrayals of humanity (though understandably happy people would be out of place in a crime novel), Dobyns delivers an engrossing story with a satisfying spine-chilling mystery.

Christine Mazur is a Winnipeg writer with a master of arts degree in English literature focusing on Stephen King's small-town-in-turmoil novel, Salem's Lot.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J7

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