The Edgar Awards Revisited: Down River by John Hart (Best Novel, 2008)
Winner of the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Novel, Down River examines the lengths to which people will go for money, family, and revenge.
The 2008 Edgar Awards were not exactly a banner year for diversity, with no nominees being women or writers of color, but it was a year of heavy-hitters nevertheless, with John Hart, Benjamin Black (Christine Falls), Ken Bruen (Priest), Reed Farrel Coleman (Soul Patch), and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) vying for the honor. Ultimately, John Hart would win, and while I can’t comment on the merits of the other nominees, I can say that Down River is one of my favorite books that Hart’s ever written.
Though penned more than ten years ago, Down River stands the test of time well. It’s the kind of story that could take place today. A small county is torn in two over the power company’s plan to construct a new nuclear facility to support a growing state. A young man who was driven away by angry neighbors for a crime he did not commit returns after five long years to a less than enthusiastic reception—Killer gouged into the paint on his car, a violent beating, and a trip to the emergency room all within 24-hours of his arrival. There are strained reunions with family and a former lover, and heated encounters with a sheriff’s department still bitter over losing one of the biggest murder charges ever brought against a suspect in the county. If it weren’t for the occasional appearance of a flip phone or a phone book in lieu of smartphones and search engines, a reader would have no idea this was taking place in a different decade.
The unease felt from the first pages when Adam Chase arrives home in North Carolina, a stark contrast to the streets of Manhattan where he’s spent the last five years, quickly escalates to heart-pounding tension when he’s physically confronted by his former best friend’s father and two thugs over his own father’s reluctance to sell land that’s been a part of their family’s story for more than two hundred years. Adam is revealed to have a long history of fighting, which can largely be credited to the loss of his mother to suicide when he was still in gradeschool. There are layers of interpersonal conflict to peel back, and Hart makes sure the reader feels every heartbreaking bite of betrayal and hurt along the way. These characters are people who are broken and unable to fix themselves or their relationships easily for lack of a willingness to communicate their pain and work toward resolution in favor of keeping old, dark secrets from coming to light.
The tension continues to build when a young woman is brutally beaten and another dead body is discovered on the Chase family farm, leaving the Chase family to reckon once again with making choices about who to believe and how to protect their family, livelihood, and legacy. With millions of dollars on the line for both the Chase family and their neighbors, all dependant on the power company’s plans, there are plenty of people with motive to push the Chases to sell, and a second murder on the farm in five years could prove to be the tipping point for a family that’s already weathered one storm of false claims and a narrowly beaten murder charge. It falls to Adam, the exiled son returned, to piece together the parts of these new crimes that are revealed to be a more complicated and tangled web than anyone could have imagined.
It’s hard to write more about Down River without giving away the best twists, so I’ll end with a personal reflection. Having grown up in a rural area, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and the power company—or, in my experience, the gas company with their pipelines—can make poor farmers instant millionaires, this book felt very real and believable, right down to the county sheriff with a vendetta. Family businesses are all kinds of complicated, even when everybody gets along, and it’s harder when a family member wants out. It becomes all the more complicated when a family member is accused of wrongdoing. Fortunately, no one in my family has killed anybody else… at least to the best of my knowledge.
Notes from the 2008 Edgar Awards:
- As mentioned above, the other nominees were Benjamin Black (Christine Falls), Ken Bruen (Priest), Reed Farrel Coleman (Soul Patch), and Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).
- Kicking off what’s been a stellar career thus far, Tana French won Best First Novel for In the Woods.
- The other nominees for Best First Novel were Head Games by Craig McDonald, Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell, Pyres by Derek Nikitas, and Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard.
- Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton won Best Motion Picture, edging out Eastern Promises, No Country for Old Men, The Lookout, and Zodiac.
- Megan Abbot’s Queenpin won Best Paperback Original.
- Bill Pronzini hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- The Mary Higgins Clark Award was given to Wild Indigo by Sandi Ault.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Anthony Franze stops by to review Blue River by C.J. Box, the 2009 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.