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Review: Koryta kicks off a dark and promising series with 'Last Words'

It's not often I have to put a book down close to bedtime because I fear bad dreams. I consume crime fiction like potato chips — and ordinarily sleep soundly afterward.

But I wasn't more than a third of the way into Michael Koryta's Last Words late one recent evening when I closed its covers and started browsing Netflix for silly sitcoms. I knew that before I put my head on the pillow I needed to shake the searing image of the book's protagonist waking up drugged, naked and freezing, lost deep underground in the utter darkness of a vast cave — or risk having it show up in my dreams.

In daylight, though, I went right back to the book. Last Words might not make you eager to go underground yourself, but it will make you avid to keep turning the pages.

Last Words is Koryta's 11th novel and the first in a new series. Among his previous bestselling books are Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Prophet and The Ridge, all compelling psychological thrillers, some with supernatural elements.

Koryta is a former St. Petersburg resident and has been on the faculty of Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise program, and he sets the beginning of Last Words in St. Petersburg. (The series will return to Florida in the next book, Echoes, whose first chapter is included as a bonus at the end of Last Words.)

In the first chapter of Last Words, Mark Novak recalls the last time he saw his wife, Lauren. Both were lawyers deeply committed to their work for Innocence Inc., a pro bono legal firm that investigates death row cases for wrongful convictions.

As they left for work, they were squabbling over her trip that day to interview a psychic in the Florida spiritualist town of Cassadaga. Lauren thinks the woman might have useful information about a murder; Mark, who has his own personal issues with psychics, sneers at the possibility. He will regret that sneer forever: Lauren will be murdered on that trip.

The second chapter is set a little over a year later. Lauren's murder remains unsolved, and Mark's life is in shambles. He is on his way to Indiana to investigate a case that doesn't seem to have anything to do with Innocence Inc. It's another unsolved murder, that of a teenager named Sarah Martin, assigned to Mark by his boss, Jeff London. Jeff hopes to persuade the organization's board not to fire Mark for crossing certain ethical lines while trying to find out who killed Lauren, and he needs Mark out of the way.

Mark knows the case in Indiana is "only marking time," so he arrives in the small town of Garrison without much preparation. Just about all he knows is that Sarah was lost for days in a cave called Trapdoor, and that an expert caver named Ridley Barnes brought out her body. Barnes was, and is, the main suspect in her death — and the person who wrote to Innocence Inc. requesting an investigation.

Mark will rapidly learn that's not the only strange thing about the case. Sarah has been dead 10 years, but her name provokes suspicious, even angry reactions from almost everyone Mark encounters in Garrison. Her mother, Diane, descends on him in a fury; the prickly sheriff, Dan Blankenship, warns him, "You be careful what doors you knock on around here, Novak." The cave, Trapdoor, has been sealed shut for a decade despite its potential as a tourist attraction, and its caretaker, Cecil Buckner, seems intent on blocking Mark's efforts. And Ridley Barnes is, in many ways, the strangest thing of all.

The answers, of course, lie in the cave, and Mark will enter it, both willingly and unwillingly, several times. Koryta does a splendid job of bringing that experience to life for the reader, whether it's the awe inspired when a dark tunnel opens suddenly into a spired room the size of a cathedral, or the sensation a caver feels when pushing himself with his toes through a tiny passageway barely large enough for his shoulders to fit: as if the cave itself is squeezing him.

Koryta is a past master at creating suspense and coming up with surprising twists, and he crafts a couple of doozies here. Mark has the makings of a successful series character, a tough guy with a dogged focus on solving the case and an intriguing backstory that includes not only his wife's murder but a cowboy childhood in Montana and a con artist mother.

By the book's end, what Mark said to his wife that fateful morning will not be the only last words to haunt him. Last Words is a promising series kickoff; just be sure to read it in daylight.

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

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