It is autumn 1937 when a mystery woman appears in Port Alma, a sea village nestled on the chilly coast of Maine. A fragile, green-eyed beauty, the woman arrives with little more than the clothes on her back and a wealth of unspoken secrets.
Before a year goes by, she will flee Port Alma on the same bus that brought her there. But before she goes, she will irrevocably alter the lives of two brothers -- leaving one dead, and the other perched on the edge of madness.
There is much that Dora March has hidden.
But in Port Alma, Maine, there are other secrets, too....
At one point in this suspense thriller a character asks, "What could be less mysterious than suffering?" Exactly. This question sums up the problem with Cook's new novel, which, like his Edgar-winning The Chatham School Affair, begins with an intriguing young woman arriving in a New England town. This time the place is Port Alma, Maine, and the woman calls herself Dora March--although we soon learn that's not her real name. As in that earlier book, the woman will have a deep and dark impact on the lives of several of the town's residents. Cook tells the story in flashbacks and sidesteps in time, beginning in 1937 with lawyer Calvin Chase's decision to give up his job as deputy district attorney to investigate the stabbing death of his beloved younger brother, Billy. Dora--the woman Billy loved--has disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived, last seen boarding a train for Portland. Unfortunately, Cook loads Cal's search for Dora with too much literary and emotional baggage, throwing out and then drawing in plot threads and jumping around in time in a manner that's sure to annoy all but the most patient readers. The narrative suffers from Dora's obvious characterization as a poster child for past child abuse, and Cal's journey from Maine to New York to California is strung out with too many jerky and misleading moves. For all his gifts as a writer, Cook has seriously overreached himself in this disappointing misfire. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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February 26, 2001
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Excerpt from Places in the Dark by Thomas H. Cook
Part One Port Alma, Maine 1937 More than anyone I ever knew, my brother Billy felt the rapid wings of summer, how it darted like a bird through the trees of Maine, skittered along streams and ponds, then soared away, bright and gleaming, leaving us behind, shivering in coats and scarves. It was on one of those fleeting summer days that he saved Jenny Grover's life. He'd built a wooden raft out of planks discarded by a local sawmill, packed the space between the boards with rags and mud, then asked me to help him carry it to the spot where Fox Creek widened and deepened, its current growing turbulent again just beyond the bend, where it made its headlong rush toward Linder Falls. "I'm going to make it all the way across," he declared. He was twelve years old, shirtless, barefoot, dressed only in a pair of cut-off trousers. "It's going to sink, Billy," I warned him. "Believe me, it's going to sink like a stone." He laughed. "If it sinks, we'll swim." "We? I'm not going out on that thing." "Oh, come on, Cal." "No," I said. "Look at me." Unlike Billy, I was fully dressed, having made no compromise with summer beyond a pair of sandals. "Okay then," he said. "You can go back home." "No, I'll wait." "Why?" "Because someone has to pull you out of the water," I told him. "That's why I came along. To save your life." This was not entirely a joke. Five years older, I had long ago assumed the part of the vigilant, protective brother, certain that throughout our lives I would be there to protect him. I'd already caught him as he tumbled from chairs and staircases, tugged him away from blazing hearths, snatched his fingers from closing doors. Once I'd even managed to drag him off a rearing pony, lower him safely to the ground. My mother had scolded me for that. "He can't avoid getting hurt, Cal," she said. "Next time let him fall." It was the sort of statement I'd come to expect from my mother, the great value she put on experience, especially painful experience. It was not the sort of advice I cared to take, however. Nor, following it, did I in the least intend to let my brother sink into Fox Pond. "Be careful, Billy," I cautioned as he stepped onto the raft, plunged his wooden paddle into the water, and pushed out into the current. "It's white water just around the bend." His eyes sparkled. "You'll be sorry you didn't come with me." "No, I won't." "You miss all the good stuff, Cal." I pointed to the trickle of water already seeping into his raft. "Like drowning?" His smile was a light aimed at the world. "Like almost drowning," he replied. "See you on the other side, Cal." With that, he shoved the handle against the rocky bottom again, this time with all his might, so that the raft shot forward with such force, it left a rippling wake behind it. I watched as he floated out into the stream, then sprinted for the rickety wooden bridge that spanned it. Billy had already made it a third of the way across the water by the time I reached the bridge. He was paddling furiously now, trying to reach the opposite bank before his inadequate makeshift raft sank beneath him. At midstream he grinned and waved to me. "Will it make it?" I called, growing anxious now. "Sure," he returned breathlessly, the raft still afloat but riding low in the water. I bounded off the bridge, then along the edge of the water. Billy was two thirds across by then, grinning, triumphant that the raft was still afloat. "Land ho," I yelled.