Book Club Review-September 2019: “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

September 2018 – Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

blog by Cindy Bushey

Thanks to almost infinite subject matter, readers can afford to pick and choose books in which to lose themselves.  Most develop favorite genres and, over time, set pretty high standards for their authors to meet.  When they find a book that meets those standards, readers are happy to share with others.  And so are born book clubs where members reap the benefits of others’ selection processes.  For its first read of the new season, Zion’s readers were introduced to a novel that epitomized what one of its members most enjoys in a book – murder, mayhem, and mystery!  Preferably in the first chapter.

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta lived up to its billing.  In fact, there were at least two dead bodies, lots of mystery, a teenager’s terror, and such intense evil oozing from a couple of characters that a few readers were not certain they could finish the book.  All in the first chapter!  The story gripped us by the throat and dragged us into a nightmare.  A teenage boy named Jace Wilson witnessed a brutal murder, and the two killers want to get rid of him next.  Inserting Jace into a wilderness survival camp for troubled teens in Montana while police search for the murderers seems like a good plan, especially if camp owners Ethan and Allison do not know which one of their clients is the target.  However, evil follows Jace to the Montana mountains and horrible attacks bring the killers closer and closer.  He must carefully choose a path with murderers behind him and a wildfire raging out of control in front of him.  Will the wildfire spotter, Hannah Faber, be able to guide him to safety?

After the tremendous opening chapter, the author either chose to back off the intensity or could not keep that same level for the following chapters.  Many of our readers appreciated the back story and release of tension while others felt the story line slowed too much.  For those of us who had travelled in the area of Montana in which Mr. Koryta set his story, the descriptions of the towns, country, and mountain passes were one of the strengths of the book.  He captured the beauty, the ruggedness, and the large distances between towns and houses with great accuracy.  Although we live in what is considered a rural area, it is crowded compared to western states.  As one reader pointed out, Montana has 7 people per square mile; Pennsylvania has 247.  One of the delights of a book club is the off-beat segues and parallels our members can make that, when uttered, seem to come out of left field until the speaker explains.  During our discussion, a reader had just two words for all this wilderness – Moby Dick!  In the stunned silence, she quickly explained that the vastness of the wilderness with Jace as small prey brought to mind the vast sea in the novel Moby Dick with one whale the target of the searching Captain Ahab.    Whether watching stars from the deck of a ship on a black ocean or from a wilderness mountain top, it is a far different experience from watching them in your Adams County backyard.  Feeling yourself hunted in that wilderness would be overwhelming – Jace was barely hanging on.  And then there was the forest fire.

Set by the killers to cover another murder (Mr. Koryta has the same deft touch with details that Hitchcock did – describing enough that the reader’s mind can anticipate the grisly ending), the fire now blocks Jace’s path to safety.  Here Mr. Koryta’s descriptive skill truly shines.  The power, the fury, the beauty, the danger, and the very aliveness of a forest fire are brilliantly set before the reader.  We all came away with a deeper understanding of the people who voluntarily put their lives on the line to fight these fires.  Indeed, some readers felt there were two stories to be told in this book – the psychopath killers and firefighting.

As the story developed, a few readers questioned the believability of certain parts of the plot.  Why would Allison and Ethan rather cavalierly endanger other young people by taking Jace into their group?  Why did Allison not take her loaded gun with her when leaving the cabin?  Most authors have one twist toward the end of their plot; why did Mr. Koryta insert another with the same character that was less believable than the first?  Other readers did not feel the situations stretched their credulity too much and simply accepted them as part of a very interesting plot that kept them turning pages until the end.  It was agreed that the author should have included a map so that readers could better appreciate the placement of the fire, the cabin, the fire tower, and the distances between them.

There was something for almost everyone in this story.  Mystery, heart-pounding anxiety, good vs. evil, the triumph of the spirit, all set against an awe-inspiring mountain background.  Jace, Allison, Ethan, and Hannah inspired admiration and empathy at various times from most of our readers.  Those of us partial to our pets found Allison’s relationship with her horse, Tango, touching.  While we all could have predicted Hannah’s actions, her character was still essential to the story.  On some level, it was a little disturbing to listen to the words coming out of the killers’ mouths and realize how good the author is at writing those psychopathic scenes.  While some readers felt the story could have been condensed, others would not have given up a word of the descriptions.  Based on our votes, Those Who Wish Me Dead was a gripping mystery and a great way to start our new year of reading.  Two of our readers gave it two thumbs up, eight gave it one thumb up, while two readers were neutral.  In addition to being a great read for those looking for murder, mayhem and mystery, the book was educational.  “Shake and bake” has an entirely new meaning for our readers.

In October, we will read Dog On It by Spencer Quinn, a different and lighter perspective on the mystery genre.