Book Review: Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith

Twentymile by C. Matthew Smith is a captivating thriller that features Special Agent Tsula Walker and her investigation of a potential suicide that leads to a dangerous encounter with a group of men on a mission to reclaim a historic homestead.

“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

 

Twentymile is a November 19th, 2021, release from Latah Books, and was written by C. Matthew Smith. The novel is a thriller with a strong literary bent that also possesses a hint of mystery. It is approximately 315 pages (depending on the publishing format).

The book is about Special Agent Tsula Walker, a criminal investigator for the National Parks Service. The story’s setting (the Great Smokey Mountains National Park) has a prominent role and reads like an additional character. In addition to her work, Tsula has ties to the area as a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

Tsula is ordered to investigate the death, an apparent suicide, of a wildlife biologist in the park. This story is mixed with that of Harlan Miles. Miles descended from a family who lived within the park’s boundaries—before the park’s formation. A subplot concerning the Cherokee’s history with a local cavern is also mixed in.

During the novel, Miles decides to reclaim his ancestral home. He is willing to do anything to achieve this goal. The resulting death and destruction threaten to swallow Tsula whole. 

The book was written in third person present tense. I like present tense when it is done well (when done poorly it reads like someone describing a movie) and Smith has done it well. He uses the format to create a more propulsive novel and create true tension. An example:

But trudging now in the low light with the temperature dropping into what must be the low twenties, Tsula fears she’s made a grievous mistake. Shouldn’t she have come across that trail junction by now?

Her whole body shakes from ankles to shoulders even while in motion. Her empty stomach has rebelled…

And here:

The words are hardly out of her mouth when gravel sprays the back of her legs with a sound like a sledgehammer striking the rock behind her. Instinctively, she turns. She hears the sound again, and dust and gravel speckle the side of her face. The second round echoes so loudly that she almost misses the buzzing sound that shoots past her shoulder and ear: a third round close but missing. She stumbles backward and lands on her rear with a shock that reverberates up her spine.

The writing is outstanding. There is a strong literary bent with deep descriptions and unique word choices. I enjoyed the author’s voice and style. He is skilled and it shows.  Here is an example:

In front of the house curls a drive of fresh ballast in the shape of a teardrop that eventually returns to the same single-track path she’s just come in on. Trees rise up from the island in the center of the drive, reaching for the sunlight.

And a description here:

The small Sevier county diner is uncomfortably hot, the air humid with butter and bacon grease sprung from a griddle barely hidden behind a swinging half door. She glances down at her bowl of oatmeal—instant, she figures, judging from its mealy texture—and imagines a cap of aerated fat congealing on its surface if she were to sit here long enough.

This book had hints of When These Mountains Burn by David Joy and a bit of Lost River by J. Todd Scott.

I’d recommend this novel if you like your thrillers well-written and tightly focused. It was a good read. I expect big things from Smith in the future. This is a strong debut.

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