Koryta’s tale is built on the fears and suspicions plaguing a community years after the unsolved death of a young woman in a cave, her body retrieved by a man suspected of her murder. Ten years later, protagonist Mark Novak is overwhelmed with the unsolved case of his murdered wife by an unknown assailant. An investigator for Florida’s Innocence Incorporated, a group that undertakes death penalty defense cases, Mark is determined to find Lauren’s murderer, jeopardizing his employment with inappropriate use of resources. To keep Novak from further damaging his position, albeit with little explanation, Mark’s boss, Jeff London, assigns him a cold case in Garrison, Indiana.
After Florida, Indiana is an alternate universe to Mark, warmth replaced by frigid temperatures as he approaches Garrison, where Sarah Martin’s dead body was located in the Trapdoor Caverns. This part of Indiana is a karst landscape, “a world honeycombed by caves, caverns and crevices.” Ridley Barnes, who found the seventeen-year-old girl’s remains, retains no memory of his time in the cave or his recovery of the body. Barnes is a prime suspect in the murder, the only man capable of finding his way through Trapdoor Caverns, a particularly difficult landscape to navigate. Owned by the wealthy and perverse Pershing MacAlister, Trapdoor has been closed since Sarah’s death, padlocked and no longer open to the public.
Novak has no intention of taking on the case, convinced it isn’t a good fit for the project. He is equally perturbed that the investigation--his special assignment--was prompted by a request from Ridley Barnes, who claims to want to know the truth regardless of the consequences. But Barnes is only one of a series of characters who not only appear hostile and uncommunicative to Mark but fail to explain why the venue was shut down completely after the girl’s death, among them the acerbic Sheriff Blankenship; Cecil Buckner, caretaker of Trapdoor Caverns for decades; elusive owner Pershing MacAlister and his daughter; Sarah’s boyfriend, Evan Borders; and the provocative, enigmatic town pariah, Ridley Barnes. Adding to the confusion is Mark’s bizarre experience in the caves, an unexpected challenge that nearly costs him his life: “Things happen in the dark that you can’t make any sense of… you tell yourself a story. Maybe the story is wrong.”
Clearly other forces are at work in this strange place, Sarah Martin’s suspicious death just the tip of the iceberg, the date she is discovered coinciding with Lauren’s murder in Florida. Too many conflicting issues create a nightmare of suggestion, suspicion and secrets for Novak to untangle. Unable to walk away from the assignment if he wants to keep his job, Mark is compelled to persist, though increasingly unsettled by the caves and psychic phenomena that hover around the edges of his subconscious. Novak is confused by the half-truths and deliberate misdirection, private agendas and hidden motivation, facts overshadowed by claustrophobic excursions into the caves and an eerie presentiment of communication with a dead girl.
While Koryta has been a reliable and consistent storyteller, Last Words is irritatingly indirect, masking motive and plot, logic dancing with the unknown (or unknowable). It is all linked to the caves, the seduction of the dark: “People had been doing two things with the earth for centuries: digging for their fortunes beneath it and burying their dead within it.” This novel requires a lot of patience to learn the truth: “It took a village to kill a monster.”