The Cypress House definitely doesn’t start with a whimper when introducing its supernatural elements. When Arlen Wagner looks around the train carriage carrying himself and co-workers to a jobsite in the Florida Keys, all he sees are skeletons looking back at him.
His gift for identifying those soon to die evolved following his experiences in the Great War, and he finds himself trying to convince those around him to leave the train.
He fails in his task, with only a young co-worker debarking with him in the middle of nowhere. Seeking shelter, the pair meet up with a traveller who helps them out with a room for the night, and then with transport toward their destination.
Things soon go awry, and they find themselves suspected of carrying out the murder of the man who picked them up. Now they’re in the middle of a strange county, with local authorities veering strongly toward highly questionable, even corrupt methods, and the pressure – meteorological as well as mental – is increasing.
The novel’s back-story is grounded somewhat in a factual event, being the 1935 Labour Day hurricane which devastated the Florida Keys, causing a tragic loss of over 400 lives. That storm serves as opener to the main body of the book, as the pair take shelter in the Cypress House, where their previous host had had his last business meeting before being killed and their troubles with the law began in earnest. Luckily they survive the worst of the storm’s ravages.
The Cypress House is a beachfront hostelry, a hotel-tavern, supposed to be a holiday destination but in reality a failed business in an otherwise gorgeous location, but one tainted by the criminal associations of those close with the property. It’s not so lucky in the storm, and so Arlen and his young associate Paul set to work repairing the property for its mysterious and withdrawn owner, the gorgeous Rebecca Cade.
She has her own problems, both with the storm and the same law men which set to frame Paul and Arlen. She finds the place certainly no idyll, and soon it becomes clear there’s a lot more than first meets the eye, and the levels of tension and drama get ratcheted up several notches as the book proceeds.
Despite featuring from the start, the supernatural premise that serves as a keystone in the construction of Kortya’s The Cypress House is fairly understated, and at times the book is the more effective for this. I found when that element was ramped up somewhat, sometimes other more realist constructs that the author had nurtured well suffered a little too much in contrast.
This book was definitely an interesting read. I did find however that the supernatural and thriller elements didn’t gel together as well as I had hoped, and this did spoil my enjoyment of the novel. Too often they seemed to be operating in isolation from each other in regards actual impact to the story, or it was as though they were just thrown in for good measure, albeit in an orderly manner.
Granted, detective fiction (and by association the genre of the thriller) and the supernatural do share historically and traditionally strong roots, but that doesn’t mean that they’re made to be the comfiest of bedfellows, and here this is somewhat the case. The pacing was a little uneven, possibly as a result of compatibility issues with otherwise diligently crafted thriller-twists meeting somewhat unerringly with the supernatural devices. This is especially so in the busier portion of the last fifth of the book, and this let things down a little.
Whilst it’s not a bad novel, and Michael Koryta is obviously a skilled and capable writer, The Cypress House did fall a bit short of my expectations. Whilst it ended on a strong note, the journey there was a little tiring at times.
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