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Review: A criminal's confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta's compelling 'How It Happened'

How It Happened
How It Happened
Published May 9, 2018

It's what every investigator hopes for: a tough case finally solved when one of the criminals confesses, providing solid details and even describing where the bodies are buried.

Or, in Michael Koryta's compelling new psychological thriller How It Happened, where the bodies are sunk. A popular young couple, Ian Kelly and Jackie Pelletier, have gone missing from their homes in the Maine shore town of Port Hope. The local police find out a drug addict named Kimmy Crepeaux has been telling friends she knows what became of the pair, but the cops can't get her to talk to them — until they bring in an FBI agent named Rob Barrett.

When Barrett figures out an ingenious way to get Kimmy talking, she pours out a shocking tale. She was partying with her friend Cass and Mathias Burke, a local property caretaker and handyman. Mathias, she says, was uncharacteristically out of control, driving a weirdly painted truck she had never seen before at reckless speed. They ended up at dawn in a cemetery, where they came upon Ian and Jackie — who ended up dead.

Kimmy's grisly story of their murders concludes with her confident description of where the bodies can be found. Mathias insisted that Kimmy and Cass help him load the bodies into his truck and move them to an isolated pond. "They're down there between the raft and the dock," she tells Barrett. "You'll find them there. ... It's just dark water, and a lonely place."

Cass can't corroborate the story; she died of an overdose three days after the murders, victim of an especially potent opioid that's cutting a grim swath through local drug users. And that weird truck is nowhere to be found.

Mathias seems an unlikely killer — he has a sterling reputation as a responsible guy who worked his way up from poverty to own a thriving business. In fact, he's a home caretaker for Ian's parents, George and Amy Kelly, who own one of the million-dollar summer mansions on the cliffs above the ocean. Jackie's dad, Howard, is a lobsterman, a widower whose only child was the light of his life.

But Kimmy's heartfelt story convinces Barrett that Mathias is involved. Barrett is so sure she's being truthful that he and the local officer on the case, Don Johansson, send divers into the pond.

They find nothing.

In some crime fiction, the confession comes at the end. In How It Happened, Kimmy's story is just the beginning. The case takes off in another direction entirely, one that might just scuttle Barrett's career — he discovers that the "Hoover-era joke" in the FBI about being punished for mistakes by being assigned to Montana isn't so funny when his boss tells him he's now "the boss of Butte." But Barrett will be back. He's haunted by Kimmy's confession, which she still insists is true.

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That's not all he's haunted by. "Rob Barrett was eight years old when he found his mother dead in the family home," Koryta writes. She was at the bottom of the cellar stairs, "her feet angled up toward him, her head pointing toward the cracked limestone floor, a slow-dripping leak from a pipe above adding water to the pool of blood below her skull." The police call it an accident, but the boy has his doubts, and years later those doubts lead him to confront her killer — and to go to work for the FBI.

He specializes in confessions, both eliciting them and evaluating them for truthfulness, which is why he was assigned to provide assistance in the Port Hope case. His superiors don't know he has his own connections to the place — he spent much of his teen years there, raised by his bullying grandfather. His first love and high school girlfriend, Liz Street, is still there, now a reporter for the local newspaper. And, it turns out, he even has a childhood connection to Mathias, one that gives him an interesting perspective on the man's character. But there's a barrage of surprises awaiting him, and the reader, as the book gains speed.

How It Happened is the 13th novel by Koryta, who is an alum of the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College and lived in St. Petersburg for several years. As always, he's adept at using setting to frame a story, whether it's the steamy Florida coast (The Cypress House) or chilly Indiana caves (So Cold the River). In How It Happened, the landscape and waters of the Maine coast are important elements.

Koryta based some of the novel's events on a real case that he covered as a young reporter in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind., the 2000 disappearance of an Indiana University student. On that framework, he builds a well-crafted mystery, and in Barrett he gives us a character who's engaging, but has his own slowly revealed demons to contend with. Dark waters indeed.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435.
Follow @colettemb.


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