Instruments of Night (1998) by Thomas H. Cook
reviewed by Barry Ergang
Novelist Paul Graves is a man literally haunted by his past. The ghosts of one grim and brutal night invade his thoughts daily, summoned or unbidden, and lend their power to his books.
Raised on a small farm in North Carolina, Graves was already an imaginative young man who had taken a liking to writing when his parents were killed in a car accident. Paul was twelve and his sister Gwen was sixteen. The two continued to live on the farm for about a year until the night Gwen was tortured and eventually slain by a sadist named Kessler and his tremulous sidekick Sykes. Forced to witness his sister's agonies, Paul retreated into a long silence.
In the story's present, a forty-five-year-old Graves lives a life of self-imposed relative seclusion in New York City. He's the author of a popular series of novels set in that city at the end of the 19th Century. They feature a detective named Slovak who, much like Sir Denis Nayland Smith chasing after Dr. Fu Manchu, pursues the bloodthirsty Kessler and the slavish Sykes from murder to murder, aging and wearying in the process—much as his creator has aged and wearied and considered self-extinction.
Graves is invited to Riverwood, an estate in the Hudson Valley that remains a family home and also an artists' colony, by wealthy Allison Davies, who grew up there and who has never left. She offers him an odd commission: look into the fifty-year-old murder of her closest friend Faye Harrison, who was killed at the age of sixteen, and write a story about it that will satisfy Faye's dying mother about who killed her daughter. The story needn't be true, only plausible.
Reluctant at first, Graves finally accepts the job and takes up residence at Riverwood, where he's given access to all of the information about Faye's death, including the detailed reports by the investigating police detective, Dennis Portman. He is joined by Eleanor Stern, a playwright, who is quite possibly more intrigued by the project than Graves is.
What might seem like a dry historical probe is rendered dramatic by Graves's vivid imagination. He visualizes the players and the scenes they enact so as to carry the reader into the moments Portman's summaries only sketch. His investigations lead to revelations about Riverwood and its denizens in that long-ago time, and about Graves's own past.
I should add, for Golden Age fans, that although Instruments of Night is very much a psychological thriller, it's also a fairly-clued mystery. The key clue is extremely subtle and easily overlooked.
I discovered Edgar Allan Poe in early adolescence, William Faulkner in my late teens. What struck me about both of their prose styles was the quality of envelopment: you might be sitting in a riotous, crowded stadium during the Super Bowl or the World Series, but if you were reading one of their stories, you'd feel as though you were alone in inky blackness, aswirl in the story's events. Thomas H. Cook—at least in this novel, the first of his I've read—conveys that same envelopment.
So why am I torn about this book?
It's very well-written, Cook's prose often lyrical. The characters are properly fleshed-out, the pacing spot-on, and the suspense carefully built and sustained.
But its tone is unremittingly dark. In short stories like Poe's, where uniformity of tone was a goal, that quality is tolerable. Many of Faulkner's darker novels were occasionally relieved by moments of levity. Not so Instruments of Night. Cook sometimes overdoes Graves's recollections of his own horrors. Thus, compelling as the storyline is, I found it hard to sustain long periods of reading. I can't recall ever having read anything darker: not Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, or Light in August. Nor Bernard Malamud's The Fixer. Not even Elie Wiesel's Night.
With that caveat in place, I can recommend Instruments of Night as worth your time.
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Barry Ergang © 2007
Currently the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages