Reviewed & Written By: JT Langley
I have to say that the word “mystery” turns me off when I’m digging for a new read. Being the ignorant student of literature that I am, my mind immediately assumes the word “mystery” to entail any and everything having to do with Sherlock Holmes, Stephen King, and CSI. Every preview of Matthew Stokoe’s upcoming novel, Empty Mile, pinned the badge of mystery-noir to its cover, and, of course, made me uneasy. Now, I repent for my sin. Stokoe’s myriad of sinister puppeteers, pseudo-antagonists, and desperate human targets weave within a plot built to plunge nowhere-town America into a patch of true black-noir, leaving it anything but typical mystery.
When Johnny Richardson returns to his home in the rural mountain town of Oakridge, California, his motive is simple: confront his troubled past that sent him running eight years prior. Haunted by a tragic accident that left his younger brother, Stan, mentally challenged, Johnny finds himself searching for forgiveness in his desperation to piece together the seemingly stable life he thought was waiting for him.
However, as he reconnects with his lost love Marla, their careless lust leads town councilman Bill Prentice’s wife to suicide, thus unfolding a series of events aimed at tearing Johnny and those closest to him to pieces. With the mysterious disappearance of their father, Johnny and Stan find themselves the owners of a desolate stretch of land dubbed Empty Mile, and are left with little explanation for their father’s purchase of the forest meadow. Their search for stability is halted as they become the target of revenge, and Johnny tries his best to uncover the truth behind their suffering while clutching the life that is slowly slipping between his fingers.
Stokoe drives the story with a full-steam narrative that puts little brake to the high-speed mystery. In its highs, Empty Mile sprints at a pace that leaves your fingers twitching as you tickle the next page. Johnny and Marla share the perfect troubled love for a noir, and their struggle to maintain affection through distress consistently feeds the side-monsters working throughout the novel’s plot. Stokoe writes with a smooth clarity that allows the reader to speed along with the story’s momentum, and his detailed description of Oakridge make for a strong, active setting.
However, at times, the characters step out of their element as they seem to be momentarily blessed with flawless detective minds not seen prior. Though these moments of genius are rare, they also seemed blessed with blind stupidity in certain circumstances in order to allow the author to delay major plot turns and realizations. At times, Stokoe makes irresponsible use of convenience rather than realistic discovery to drive the plot in the direction he intends, and important factors of the rising action come to the characters too easily.
Perhaps his biggest flaw in the novel is Stan, Johnny’s mentally challenged brother. The gap between the extremities of Stan’s condition are too vast—at times, he is seen as a 22-year-old boy romping around in his superhero costumes playing dumb in Looney Tune fashion, and at others, acting perfectly normal and exhibiting portions of the intelligence he possessed before the accident. His dialogue and actions border the line of stereotype and insult, and take a great risk in offending readers tender to the subject.
Despite the negative, Empty Mile commits the reader to the story from the first chapter. Some turns are foreseen, others come from the blue. Ultimately, Stokoe forces readers to comply with the bends and turns of his devious plot, and awards them with an ending that promises not to disappoint. Sometimes it takes the last few pages for the story to knock you to the floor, and Empty Mile draws the rubber band to the snapping point before letting it recoil back into the reader’s face.
For further information on Empty Mile, visit www.akashicbooks.com.