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Review: Koryta's 'Rise the Dark' a dark mix of spirits and science

Michael Koryta skillfully captures Cassadaga, the spiritualist community near Lake Helen, off Interstate 4 east of Orlando, in the novel.
Published Aug. 11, 2016

Many people go to Cassadaga looking for ghosts. The northeast Florida town, founded in 1895 by spiritualists who believed it is possible to communicate with the dead, is still home to dozens of mediums and psychics who offer their services to the public.

But Markus Novak is a special case. He doesn't just want to scare up his late wife, Lauren, in a seance. He wants to know why she was murdered in Cassadaga, a town she never set foot in until the day she died.

In Michael Koryta's new novel, Rise the Dark, what Novak discovers in Cassadaga, and beyond, will be even stranger than he imagines.

This is Koryta's second novel about Novak, a private investigator. The first, Last Words, published in 2015, opened in St. Petersburg, where Mark and Lauren lived. Both worked for Innocence Inc., a pro bono legal firm that investigated death row cases for wrongful convictions. He scoffed when she set out for Cassadaga to interview a psychic — and he would never get the chance to apologize.

Last Words took Novak into the bowels of the earth in an Indiana cave in pursuit of a killer. As Rise the Dark opens, he's back in Florida and ready to pursue the reason for his wife's death.

He already knows who killed her: a sexual predator named Garland Webb. The case has new urgency for him not just because Lauren has been dead for two years but because Webb, who was in prison for another sexual assault, is being released on the grounds his legal defense was shoddy. Novak thinks he'll find Webb in Cassadaga. And he doesn't really pretend to himself that their encounter will be peaceful.

He will find that Cassadaga lives up to its reputation as a place that seems otherworldly and out of time — especially when he strikes up an acquaintance with a boy who regularly consults with a ghost named Walter.

The town's living are far more dangerous. Novak goes to talk to Dixie Witte, the psychic Lauren was to interview, and nearly joins his wife on the other side of the veil.

Koryta, an Indiana native who lived for several years in St. Petersburg and has been on the faculty of Eckerd College's Writers in Paradise conference, always uses setting to great effect in his bestselling thrillers. In Rise the Dark, his 12th book, he evokes Cassadaga skillfully before moving the story across the country, to the rugged mountains of Montana.

Along the way, Novak will team up with Lynn Deschaine, who works for the Pinkerton Agency (founded in 1850 and one-time employer of crime fiction progenitor Dashiell Hammett). After bloody events in Cassadaga, they're both pursuing a woman named Janell Cole, a chase that will take them to Red Lodge, Mont. — another town Novak has a deep and largely unpleasant connection with.

Mark begins to feel an attraction to Lynn despite struggling with guilt: "You couldn't cheat on the dead. But, Lord, you could certainly feel like you had. The heart and the mind do not always align."

As his story unfolds, Koryta alternates it with that of a young couple, Sabrina and Jay Baldwin, who live in Red Lodge. He works as a high-voltage lineman, repairing the most perilous kind of damage to power lines in the worst conditions. It's a job that recently cost Sabrina's brother his life. But their world turns even darker when she is kidnapped, and a strange, charismatic character named Eli Pate tells Jay he has a job to do if he wants her back alive.

Pate, it turns out, is a cult leader with a difference. Obsessed by the work of inventor Nikola Tesla and holed up in an extremely remote mountaintop ranch, he is ready to put in motion a plan that could paralyze half the country. His motives are obscured by his method: recruiting extremists from a whole range of ideologies, from Islamic terrorists to gun-nut preppers to environmental radicals.

In Rise the Dark, Koryta again constructs a hold-your-breath thriller around believable characters and the bonds, familial and romantic and ideological, that bind them. It's a wild ride, and if you're out West, you might never want to drive over a cattle guard again.

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

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