Eric Shaw, a film maker who has so far failed to win the Oscar he so deserves, is approached, out of the blue, by Alyssa Bradshaw, a beautiful heiress with an open cheque book. She wants him to make an investigative documentary on her 95 year old billionaire father-in-law. Apart from the name of his hometown, Campbell Bradford’s past is as cloudy as the contents of an antique bottle of “Pluto Water” – the only possession remaining from his early life.
Shaw is soon heading for the town of West Baden, in the Springs Valley of southern Indiana. Here he discovers the fascinating history of a resort which once drew Hollywood celebrities, mobsters and royalty alike, all seeking to benefit from the famous curative powers of the mineral springs and salt licks of the area. In his suitcase is the bottle of Pluto Water, which he “borrowed” from the dying Campbell Bradford, and which, for Shaw, might as well carry a sign saying “Drink Me”. Waking dreams, initially the barely heard, seductive strains of a beautifully played violin, soon become much more sinister imaginings – or are they reality? As he delves more deeply into the town’s and the Bradford family’s history, so Shaw’s visions become more terrifying, his need for Pluto Water intensifies, and a much darker story emerges.
Michael Koryta has drawn on his local knowledge, and his past experience as both a reporter and a Private Investigator to spin a vivid, suspenseful and compelling thriller. His first novel was published when he was only 21. In 2008, his fourth book, Envy the Night, won the L.A. Times Book Prize for best mystery thriller. He says of So Cold the River, his sixth novel, “The idea for this story came wholly from the place itself.” Koryta grew up not far north of the Indiana towns brought to life here. He remembers seeing the West Baden Hotel as a child, when it was “little more than a ruin”. It was “a moment and a memory that lingered”, and as an adult, his compulsion to build a story around the hotel grew with his research into its history and the geology of the area.
Not only is a powerful presence evoked by the landscape, the mysterious Lost River with its strange gulfs and sink holes; the weather becomes almost another character in the novel – sometimes vengeful, sometimes menacing, ever present. Along with Anne McKinney, long-time resident of West Baden who has been tracking the mood changes of the wind and clouds as far back as she can remember, we wait, with ever-growing tension for the storm to end all storms, a tornado of rare and epic proportions even for the Midwest.
And then there is the West Baden Springs Hotel – “Carlsbad of America,” a grandiose, old-world, faithfully restored hotel, rising from the flatlands like a giant red-domed castle. Like The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, it is a real hotel, with a real history. But if you check in, to quote NY Times best-selling author, Dan Simmons, “For God’s sake, don’t drink the water.”
If you enjoy the novels of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Stephen King - or any writers who create such a strong sense of place that you immediately feel immersed in the area where the story happens – that you want to go there and explore the landscape for yourself – dare to read So Cold the River.
Review by Betsy Roberts