Michael Koryta is a writer on the rise. And there are fewer higher elevations he’d rather visit than those of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains — the setting for the Indiana native’s newest thriller, "Those Who Wish Me Dead."
Big Sky Country is the perfect setting for Koryta, an early bloomer — he got his first book contract at age 21 — who has widened his ambition and his palette in recent years, from a competent but undistinguished detective series to one quality literary thriller after another. He scored big in 2011 with a supernaturally-tinged tale, "The Cypress House," and scored even bigger the next year with "The Prophet," a moody, minor-key, perfect-pitch tale of siblings, murder and sports in small-town Ohio.
With "Those Who Wish Me Dead," Koryta is playing all major keys, having married the breakneck pace of a thriller to the marvelous authenticity of its gorgeously dangerous Big Sky settings.
The plot is a ripper, too: 14-year-old Jace Wilson is on the run after witnessing a murder. It’s decided that the best way to stash the troubled boy for safekeeping during the investigation is to place him on an Outward Bound-style summer outing in the Beartooths, between Red Lodge and Cooke City, under the direction of ex-military instructor Ethan Serbin.
But the bad guys are systematically questioning, and killing, every person who might know something. And before long, they’re in Montana, confronting Ethan’s wife, Allison, and using her to lure Ethan and Jace into the open. The ruse works on Ethan, but Jace slips away during the return hike. That sets up a desperate wilderness search between three different groups on a collision course.
Oh, and did I mention the forest fire that’s nipping at everyone’s hiking-boot heels?
The reveals, reverses and twists are enough to keep any thriller fan happy. But what really sets "Those Who Wish Me Dead" apart are the bad guys — Jack and Patrick Blackwell, cheerfully murderous brothers who communicate in a chillingly chipper Chip ‘n’ Dale style. (What came to mind for me were the ultra-polite, erudite gay killers, Wynt and Kidd, from the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.)
In time, I think "Those Who Wish Me Dead" will become part of the Montana literary canon, in large part for Koryta’s careful but unsentimental rendering of the landscape. In this author’s hands, there’s none of the usual overheated lyric fetishizing of Heart Earth that seems requisite to most Montana lit.
Instead, the setting is rendered through the patient lessons of Ethan Serbin, and through Jace’s eager interest in learning — and learning how to use those lessons to stay alive:
“Montana was better because it forced distraction. Video games and movies hadn’t been able to claim his mind. Out here, the land demanded his mind leave the memories. He had to concentrate on the tasks of the moment. There were too many hard things to do for any other option.”
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who lives near Seattle. He can be reached at email@example.com.