Sunday, June 07, 2009

Dark Shadows Red Bayou

Dark Shadows Red Bayou
by John Atkinson

(Fisher King Press / 0-981-03447-0 / 978-0-981-03447-8 / June 2009 / 200 pages / $17.95)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Somebody is killing prostitutes in the swamp.

To Sheriff Coles Bleu, the “job was everything; never mind the formalities of protocol. By his rules, he always got the bad guys. His office achieved the highest crime-solving rate in Louisiana. Now, that record was being threatened.”

John Atkinson, who brought us the unforgettable Johnnyboy in his powerful debut novel Timekeeper (2007), returns with three, rough-cut, equally memorable characters in the first book to be published under Fisher King’s new il piccolo imprint.

Coles Bleu, Bennett Morgan and Francis Lovain grew up together in a small town in the delta country around Lake Pontchartrain. Coles grew into a 300-pound, brute-force sheriff who rules his county with an iron hand; he’s both loved and feared, and he likes the South because that’s where people know how to work together and get stuff done. Bennett’s family had money, and as a stockbroker, Bennett still has it, along with his Rolex, large house, analyst and a powerful new convertible. The troll-like Francis, who lives in the swamp, sports platinum-capped teeth and a face not even a mother could love. The swamp, and its Put-In-Ditch channel where the bodies are being found, lives and breathes through Atkinson’s haunting word pictures as a wonderfully chilling location for this tightly written thriller. Francis loves the swamp, Bennett fears it, and Coles views it pragmatically as the place he went fishing as a kid and the place the murder investigation is luring him now.

“As adults, Coles, Ben, and Francis knew the catch basin held no prejudices when it came to nature’s rules. A wrong move could cost a life. Gambling with death was fun when they were boys with boundless courage. But as Ben grew older he was less inclined to do reckless things.”

Bennett thinks Francis knows something about the murders because Francis knows everything about the bayou. While Coles is inclined to give their strange childhood friend a little more slack, he concedes that Francis’ friendship with the Goocha, the shaman of the swamp, is disturbing. Plus, there aren’t a lot of leads and the last thing Coles needs is either New Orleans reporters or the Feds sniffing around his domain asking questions and causing trouble.

The killer believes he is doing the Lord’s work, showing wayward women the error of their profession. Like the other predators in the bayou, he kills with cold efficiency because the injunction is built into his psyche. Then, too, there’s the voice inside his head urging him to move ahead with the Holy task, but without his disparaging, profane language:

“Speak kindly, boy, you hear?”
“I hear. Ready or not, I’ll teach her a thing or two.”
“My child, that’s much better. Now mind your mouth.”

When, or if, this killer is stopped, depends greatly on the strengths and weaknesses of three characters whose lives are more obstinately tangled together than the vines in Red Bayou. These men, the novel’s rich location and non-stop action, and the liberal doses of offbeat humor make this dark mystery a satisfying experience.

See Also: John Atkinson's Blog
The March of Books Review

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