In 1950, seven-year-old Tim Underhill watched helplessly from a distance as his nine-year-old sister April was killed. She was the first official victim of the Blue Rose killer in Millhaven, Illinois. Four more murders followed and then the case was apparently solved when the homicide detective in charge of the investigation, William Damrosch, was found dead, an apparent suicide, and it was believed for forty years that Damrosch had been the killer. Life came along and swept up Tim Underhill. It took him to high school where he met John Ransom. It took him to Vietnam where he crossed paths with Ransom twice more. Then it took him home, where Tim Underhill wound up in New York City as a successful novelist. Until one day, from out of the blue, he got a call from John Ransom.
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"Someone attacked two people and wrote BLUE ROSE near their bodies. The first person died, but the second one is in a coma. She's still alive . . . My wife, April."
Underhill boards a plane and returns to the place he thought he'd never go again.
Peter Straub's THE THROAT is one dense book. It's 689 pages and the story is one of the most complex I think I've ever read. Underhill enlists the help of "resident sleuth" Tom Passmore and together the pair sift through forty years of history, in Millhaven, Vietnam, and beyond, to uncover not only the original Blue Rose murderer--since the adult Tim came to believe Damrosch had been framed--but the person carrying on the work, staging his murders in the same locations as his predecessor. Now, normally, I'd give more plot than this, but to do so in this case would be to ruin the surprises, and this book is full of them, each building on the last, so that to give anything away at this point is to lessen the experience for newcomers. The characters come and go out of frame in rapid fire as the story is unpeeled layer by layer. This what a novel should be.
I don't read much Straub. Well, I don't read ENOUGH Straub, though I've got plenty on my shelves. I'd experienced him in his two collaborations with Stephen King, THE TALISMAN and BLACK HOUSE, and I've read his novel GHOST STORY, the one that should be required reading for life in general just because its so good I think everyone should experience it. But other than that, I haven't spent much time on him. THE THROAT is the third in a trilogy called The Blue Rose trilogy, preceded by KOKO, which I've read, and MYSTERY, which I've not, but unlike your regular trilogy these stories stand alone and you don't need the other two to enjoy one.
Part of the reason THE THROAT is so long is due to Straub's style, not the complexities of the plot. He goes into great detail, sometimes too much detail in my opinion, showing every action a character makes.
I went back across the street and waited in the Pontiac for half an hour, but the Sunchanas did not come home. Finally, I wrote my name and Johns phone number at the bottom of a note saying that I wanted to talk with them about Bob Bandolier, tore the page from my notebook, and went back up onto the screened porch. I turned the knob of their front door, and the door opened. A residue of the sense of danger I had just experienced went through me, as if the empty house held a threat. "Hello, anybody home?" I called out, leaning into the room, but I didn't expect an answer. I put the note on the polished floorboards in front of the brown oval rug on the living room floor, closed the door, and went back to the car.
This paragraph could have been half the length, and this novel could have been a good 200 pages shorter, but the way Straub writes it, you almost don't even notice all those extra words and before you know it it's almost 11:00 at night and you're another 40 or 50 pages in. Because it doesn't seem written--to me, anyway--as if he's just padding the book to make it thicker, he's drawing us as completely into the book as he can with detail after detail so the world of the novel becomes, for us, almost as real, maybe even more real at times, than the world around us. I read the last 150 pages one afternoon sitting on the couch in the den. I have no idea what my kids were doing half the time, but I know every move Tim Underhill made and every time I tried to put it down, telling myself I'd finish up tomorrow, I picked it up again two minutes later, saying well one more chapter, then I'll put it down for the day.
Of course, as good as the novel was, there were problems. A novel like this one, a mystery, almost always depends on coincidence. I've never read a mystery novel that didn't. But the coincidences in THE THROAT are almost too many to count and it's distracting at times. In fact, there was a time or two I probably rolled my eyes at them. A coincidence here and there in a story like this and you think there's a god watching out for the characters. But when the count gets as high as THE THROAT, it tends to ruin the suspension of disbelief. So much of this novel depends on characters, mostly Tim Underhill and the murderer, being in the right place at the right time, turning their head and catching that perfect glimpse of something that will come into play in the next chapter, that after a while you're left a little cold. And the false ending, while a common device in a lot of novels, was a lot more satisfying than the actual ending--no, not the denouement, the climax. There was a false climax when they think they've caught the killer only to have more surprises follow. Unfortunately the surprises that follow weren't nearly as satisfying as what we thought was the end and after almost 700 pages, you feel a little cheated by that, too.
But I can overlook that. The experience of meeting these characters, of reading this prose, and trying to pick apart a plot that's locked together like Lemarchand's box more than counterbalanced a weak ending. I mean, how many great novels out there have endings that measure up to the rest of the book anyway? Can you say THE STAND?
So in the end THE THROAT was a very satisfying read, and a very demanding one. It's heavy, it's thick, it's complicated, but it's very much worth the effort and it's a novel that'll stick with you for a while once you're done. THE THROAT is everything a novel should be.
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