The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson
The Boy in the Woods by Carter Wilson (Severn House, 2014) starts off with a well-tried ploy. In 1981, three boys of fourteen summers have an experience (in the woods of Oregon) which shapes them. Then with the flick of the author’s pen, thirty years pass and we find one of the victims, Tommy Devereaux, has contrived to become a bestselling author of thrillers. This would have been a good place for him to sit quietly, but he decides he should exorcise the ghosts of his past by writing fact as fiction. Yes, he’s decided to blow the whistle on what happened when he was fourteen-years old and witnessed a murder. This would have been a great idea if he’d taken the time and trouble to conceal vital details, but the girl who committed the murder finds the sample chapter published as a teaser all too clear and lets our author know it. Now our “happily” married man has to contend with a psychopathic serial killer who has a story to tell. Needless to say, the events of the past were not quite as clear cut as the prefatory description suggested. Tommy with Mark Singletary and Jason Covington were more thoroughly involved than it first appears. This creates the irony of Tommy being in the position of many of the “victims” in his own books. It also helps to explain a little of Tommy’s psychology because all his books have featured female villains. In a way, he’s been using his books as a form of therapy to accommodate his feeling of horror over what happened.
As a protagonist, Tommy is the perfect victim for blackmail. He’s already in trouble in his marriage because he had an affair and then told his wife about it (but not the identity of the woman involved—she still works for him). Because of that confession, he’s on probation and continues to feel guilty. That he’s keeping an older and darker secret adds to the pressure since he does not want to lose his wife and family. His professional reputation as an author could also evaporate if it was suggested he’d participated in a murder thirty years ago. Similarly, Mark Singletary has gone on to great things as Republican State Senator in South Carolina. The only one who appears safe is Jason Covington. He’s reported as having committed suicide twenty years ago. That would make Jason the weak and cowardly one. Mark was excited by the experience and Tommy. . . Well, he was defiant and, perhaps by some standards, the strong one.
So what does this killer want? Well apart from having a little fun at Tommy’s expense and adding a few more deaths to keep up her batting average, she wants Tommy to understand the mind of a killer. Although she thinks his books to date have been reasonably good, he’s never really communicated a clear understanding of how and why people kill. Now he’s started to write her story, she wants it told right. This means Tommy’s about to get a crash course in how to commit a murder and get away with it. No wait, he’s already done that! Thirty years ago, he could have told his own parents, or the parents of the dead boy, or the police what happened. But he became complicit through his silence. The book then describes the game between Tommy and Elizabeth (or perhaps that should be the other way round since she’s the one who thinks she’s in control).
The story is told in a taut and economical style with short chapters maintaining a good pace as the plot unwinds. As a plot, this has a rather pleasing surprise towards the end. If nothing else, it shows how little young boys know of the world around them. This gives the book the best possible chance to succeed as a thriller with a faint horror edge (the initial murder is of a young boy and there’s an element dealing with child abuse). But the book lacks a certain edge because our protagonist Tommy is not wholly likeable. Although the character is reasonably plausible, reacting to events in ways which are moderately credible, it’s difficult to get behind him as a classic thriller victim and root for him to emerge the winner at the end. This is not to say the psychopathic Elizabeth is anything but a monster. But when a “hero” turns out to have more than just feet of clay, my reaction as a reader is to observe dispassionately to see whether I think the author’s resolution gives the interested parties their just deserts. In this case, only one character gets anything approximating justice, albeit many years delayed. Thus, The Boy is the Woods is good of its type with something of an antihero reacting to threats and struggling to keep his lifestyle together, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.