'Those Who Wish Me Dead' is a summer page-burner

Tampa Bay TimesJune 19, 2014 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'Those Who Wish Me Dead'

    By Michael Koryta

    Little, Brown. 392 pages. $26.

You won't find a hotter summer thriller than Michael Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead.

Not only does its plot sizzle with one shocking turn after another; it also involves a massive forest fire so vividly described you almost expect the edges of the pages to be scorched.

Koryta started his career as an author a decade ago at age 21, when he published his first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, which won the Private Eye Writers of America award for best first novel. He has written series detective fiction, ghost stories, historical fiction and more.

Those Who Wish Me Dead, his 10th book, is a classic thriller in which an innocent is pursued by deadly enemies.

That innocent is Jace Wilson, a 14-year-old Indiana boy who, in the book's first chapter, accidentally witnesses a murder — or rather, an execution performed by a pair of icily professional hit men. Jace manages to hide from the killers that day, but it's soon clear his life is in danger.

In the second chapter we meet Ethan Serbin, who "left the Air Force after years working as a survival instructor in every climate known to man and made his home in the Montana mountains." He and his wife, Allison, have a home in the shadow of the Beartooth range. Ethan now teaches survival skills in private seminars and, in the summers, runs a camp for troubled teenagers, taking them up into the rugged, remote mountains and teaching them skills beyond starting campfires and blazing trails.

"One of the things he learned, teaching those warriors, was that a survivor had specific skills, and almost all of them were between the ears, a convergence of cognitive prowess and emotional control."

One night during a blizzard, one of Ethan's former students shows up. Jamie Bennett is a private bodyguard, and she begs Ethan to take Jace (under an alias) into his group of kids as a way to get the boy entirely "off the grid" and out of the killers' reach. Despite Allison's qualms, Ethan agrees.

The boy proves an apt pupil, and that's good, because those two killers turn up with alarming speed. Jack and Patrick Blackwell are brothers, blond and pale-eyed and disturbingly close. They carry on conversations with each other as if the people they're preying on can't even hear them, as one character says: "The way they say things. Like they're alone in the world. Like it was built for the two of them and they're lords over it." They are frighteningly formidable foes, and men who enjoy their work.

Also in the mix is Hannah Faber, a young woman who was a firefighter on a hotshot team until one disastrous day a year before. Now she is working as a fire spotter in an isolated tower high in the Beartooths, licking her emotional wounds and enjoying her solitude — until Jace shows up at her aerie.

He does so not long after Hannah has spotted her first fire, one that was started by the Blackwell brothers in the commission of yet another murder, and one that will grow into a gigantic wildfire that will threaten the lives of all of the characters as their pursuits of Jace, either to harm or to help him, converge.

Koryta builds the book's suspense with impressive skill, shifting among different characters' points of view to keep the reader constantly on edge.

He researches his books intensively, and for Those Who Wish Me Dead he enrolled in a survival training camp, hiked the Beartooths and conferred with hotshot teams. It shows in the many details that flesh out the action, from descriptions of the terrain and the fire's movement across it to a hair-raising "flint and steel" lightning storm amid the mountaintops.

All of it will keep you rapidly turning the pages, and maybe considering a survival course before your next foray into the woods. As Ethan says, "Anticipate and recover, anticipate and recover. If you could do the first well, you were ahead of most people. If you could do both well? You were a survivor."

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