Most crime fiction focuses on criminals and the investigators who pursue them. In his ninth novel, Michael Koryta takes an unusual tack: The Prophet tells a compelling story about what happens to the survivors of victims of violent crime.
Koryta, who lives part of the year in St. Petersburg, published his first novel, a mystery titled Tonight I Say Goodbye, when he was 21. He followed that with four more traditional crime novels, then three books of crime fiction tinged with supernatural elements. In The Prophet he returns to realistic crime fiction — although the novel certainly has its share of ghosts — to create a powerful psychological portrait of two brothers whose lives were shattered by their sister's terrible death.
As The Prophet opens, Adam and Kent Austin are still feeling the echoes of the murder of Marie 22 years before, when she was a high school student. Kent, the youngest sibling, is now a revered high school football coach, pushing his team toward a state championship, and a happily married family man. Adam is a bail bondsman, a job that dovetails with his cynical, lone-wolf personality and occasional surges of aggression; he's romantically involved with a woman whose husband is serving time. Although they both still live in their small hometown in Ohio, the brothers haven't spoken in years.
Then another young woman is murdered. She isn't family, but she is the girlfriend of one of Kent's star players. And, just as he did when Marie was killed, Adam feels a sense of responsibility. The night his sister died, Adam was supposed to give her a ride home — just five blocks from their school. Instead, he left her to walk and spent the evening making love to his girlfriend. Somewhere in those five blocks, Marie was abducted.
The man convicted of taking and killing her died in prison, but there seems to be a connection to the Austins in the new crime. Then someone makes graphic threats against Kent's family, and both brothers find themselves caught up in a potentially deadly game.
Koryta shows us Kent and Adam struggling to move past the defining event in their lives, with not much success. Adam still lives in the house they inherited from their parents, where he has recreated Marie's bedroom as it was when she died, right down to the sign on the door: "Marie Lynn Austin Lives Here — Knocks Required, Trespassing Forbidden! Thanks, Boys!" It's where he goes to talk to her, to make his endless apologies.
Kent leads the football team both he and his brother played for. Adam was a star, a brutally tough linebacker who famously played most of the last quarter of one playoff game with a broken hand. Kent was never that kind of player but became a thoughtful, dedicated coach who bans profanity and emphasizes character to his players. His penance for Marie is his prison ministry; he even confronted, and forgave, her killer — only to be mocked.
Confrontation with evil is a theme throughout The Prophet, along with its corollary: how we behave in the face of it. Koryta skillfully contrasts the two brothers, telling the story from their alternating points of view and ratcheting up the suspense. The book's detailed accounts of football games don't slow the action but complement it and deepen the portraits of Adam and Kent.
Solving crime drives the plot, of course, but cops and killers alike are secondary as Marie's survivors share center stage. No matter how much time passes, what happened to her is indelible, as Kent reflects when violence strikes again: "Somehow he felt as if he couldn't be surprised. Everything circled. Everything with teeth, at least, everything that snapped and bit and drew blood."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.