Larry Gandle is the assistant editor of DEADLY PLEASURES MYSTERY MAGAZINE. In his real life he is a radiation oncologist living in Tampa, Florida.
“This is the darkest story I have ever heard. And all my life I have laboured not to tell it” So begins this masterpiece by this one of the most lyrical practitioners of the atmospheric historical mystery. This is easily the book that I most frequently press into people’s hands over the years. In fact, I keep a ready supply of the book on hand to give away to readers if they only promise me they will read it and pass it onto another reader. I have been in mystery bookstores and bought the book on the spot for fellow mystery fans who never read it. BREAKHEART HILL is one of the first mystery books I read after all my schooling and training and it is the book I credit with making me a huge fan of mysteries and giving me the enthusiasm to read and review so many books in the genre.
Personally, I love lyrical writing and I truly believe that few writers are capable of doing it well. Many successful writers in the genre are storytellers but few are both storytellers and true writers. Some writers, like Michael Connelly are capable of both. Who could forget the beautiful contrasting scene of Harry Bosch sitting in his car at a stop sign in THE LAST COYOTE as a coyote steps in front of his car and looks him in the eye. Mike can write majestically but it is the story and characters that take centre stage. The style he prefers works perfectly for police procedurals or legal thrillers of which nobody writes them better.
James Lee Burke comes immediately to mind with his beautiful portraits of the Louisiana countryside. From the smell of the fragrant air to the lush vegetation, one gets a true sense of the locale unlike anybody else really. The problem is that he seems to write the same book over and over but he does do it beautifully.
Tom Cook, my favourite lyrical writer, writes a different book each time. He can write anything from romance novels to taut police procedurals. However, he is at his very best with historical mysteries and no more so than with this particular book. BREAKHEART HILL takes place in a small southern town, Choctaw, Alabama in 1962. Ben Wade tells how the girl he was infatuated with, Kelli Troy’s body was found battered and beaten in the mountain woods. The reader knows something terrible has happened. As Ben asks at the end of the first chapter, “What was Kelli doing on Breakheart Hill that day? What was she looking for in those deep woods alone?” The rest of the novel will answer those questions and the result will be shocking. Yet, as the reader progresses through the book, which gives a beautiful portrait of growing up in a small town and a first romance in high school, the reader cannot forget the chilling first chapter. We know that is where we are heading- to a terrible place. This will not be a happy ending.
So with that first chapter send off, Tom Cook can tell as leisurely a story, as he likes. The reader is hooked and the tension will only heighten the further into the book they read. This technique of writing the conclusion in the first chapter and drawing out the suspense as to how we reach that point is a brilliant storytelling device. I am not saying Tom invented that but I am saying he has done it about as good as anyone else ever has.