Good, evil tussle in vivid thriller

Author John Hart.
Author John Hart.

John Hart’s books should be packaged with instant cocoa and a CD of Hart singing soothing lullabies. It’s only fair that after planting images in your brain that jolt you awake in the night, he should help you get back to sleep.

Hart is far from the only writer dipping into torture porn these days, but he wakes you in the night because there’s a magic in his work that sinks the disturbing images into the mind and doesn’t let the reader skim and then let them loose.

First, there’s his vivid, loving language when describing his home soil of the South. Town centers and front porches and back roads, all painted in colors and textures and the smells on the breeze. “Down the bluff, the river moved with the sound of a whispering crowd.” It’s intoxicating, especially if it’s also the landscape of your own heart. He sees it with love and with regret: “every year it got harder to pretend the best times weren’t in the past.” It opens the reader up, lowers your defenses.

Second, unlike some authors whose dark books offer not one character to root for, Hart creates characters your heart bleeds for. Like a little boy pulling wings off flies, he sends into your unguarded heart the most vulnerable of victims. In “Redemption Road,” his first book in five years, he gives us a young boy starving in a tumbledown house with a father sunk in alcoholic self-pity, and a policewoman scarred physically by the job and emotionally by her religious family.

Third, the forces for good are breathtakingly frail – personified by an honorable lawyer whose heart is in the right place but whose ancient body betrays him – and the forces of evil overwhelmingly strong, holding all the winning cards in an iron grip for most of the story.

The policewoman, Elizabeth Black, is under investigation in a possible case of excessive force after two men who had abducted a teenager died with eighteen rather carefully placed bullets in them, indicating something more than the heat of self-defense. The boy is in the hospital with a gunshot wound after trying to shoot an ex-cop on the day of his release from prison.

The day of that release, a murder occurs exactly like the one that sent Adrian Wall to prison in the first place, so he’s immediately under suspicion again. Elizabeth has carried a torch for him since her youth, so even when she’s suspended pending the decision on her case, she disregards all boundaries in her efforts to clear his name.

Those are the bones of the story; the flesh of it is infinitely deeper and more twisted and thoroughly worth a slow, attentive read. Hart’s muscular prose is an editor’s dream, written not just in active voice but using verbs you feel in your viscera: Elizabeth strips off a bathrobe; a traffic circle spits cars out; a shadow climbs the wall.

Possibly the most haunting image is of the cripplingly claustrophobic Adrian sitting in the ashy open-air ruins of his home, a fire built in what remains of the fireplace. He waits with no illusion of shelter as his pursuers close in.

We wait, too, watching the murderer lure new victims and arrange their bodies in Elizabeth’s childhood church, and watching the surrounding evil close in on Adrian, with an even worse evil waiting unseen in the form of betrayal by the ones they trust. Hart builds clues into the story seamlessly so that the final confrontation feels inevitable, twists and all.

There is redemption, but the road to it leaves scars.

Meet the author

John Hart, a Durham native who now lives in Virginia, is returning to his home state for several events in the coming weeks. Catch him:

7 p.m., Tuesday, May 10, Park Road Books, Park Road Shopping Center, 4139 Park Road, Charlotte.

See all tour dates:


“Redemption Road”

By John Hart

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 430 pages. Release date: May 3.