- Book Title: Mortom
- Author: Erik Therme
- Genre: Mystery
Length: 294 pages
Release Date: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 3 edition (February 6, 2014)
Purchase Links: Smashwords | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo
Spoilers. I hate them. Not so much because of what they are, but because as a reviewer—especially of mysteries—you just can’t say everything you would like to about a book. At least not until everybody else has read the book too. Sigh. Well, here goes. (And if you think I’m crossing the Spoilersville County line, please feel free to put fingers in your ears and sing out “Na, na, na” until you get past that bit.)
In his debut novel, Mortom, author Erik Therme presents one of the most well-written books I’ve ever not liked. Don’t get me wrong. His writing, pacing, and development had me glued to Mortom, staying up most of the night turning pages, almost as mystified as protagonist Andy Crowl. After his cousin, Craig Moore, is found drowned, Andy is surprised to hear that he’s been named Craig’s heir even though the two had a competitive, and eventually distant relationship. When Andy, accompanied by his sister Kate, arrives at Craig’s house, they find a dead rat with a key stuffed into its mouth, and a scrap of paper that sends Andy on a quest for clues to solve the puzzle left by his cousin.
The clues left by Craig reveal more about about the failed relationships, unpleasant truths, and wasted lives of the characters than they do about the mystery itself. And that leads to the two main problems I had with the book. The first problem is that I wanted to sympathize with Andy, a selfish recluse using alcohol to self-medicate the pain from recent marriage and job failures. Unfortunately, Andy’s relationship with his unremittingly acidic sister Kate, his cowardice, his own obsessive need to “beat” his cousin at the puzzle, and his driving greed for something he never earned makes liking him a hard sell.
But the toxic characters are only part of the problem. It soon becomes evident that the clever, unpleasant puzzle left by Craig is much more dangerous than just an intellectual exercise. And that explodes in a shocking denouement that escalates so rapidly it almost seems to belong to a different book entirely.
So, with both toxic characters and horrifying ending, why am I giving Mortom three and a half stars? The answer is the writing. It’s just that good. Therme is not interested in having the story “cure” any of his characters’ problems. Nobody is better off at the end than where they started, and character development is certainly out of the question. But if you look at this book as an exploration, under Therme’s magnifying glass, of this little group of characters as he pokes them and lifts up the rocks they try to hide under, you realize that they couldn’t have behaved any differently. He knows their flaws, knows they won’t rise above them, and knows which new rocks they’ll scurry back under.
Should you read Mortom? Well, if you like good writing, a fast-paced page turner, and a well-crafted puzzle the answer is yes. But if you would like to have even one character you can identify or empathize with… you might want to wait to see what Erik Therme comes out with next. He’s definitely a writer to watch.**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
Andy stood at the foot of the grave, unmoving and unblinking. The cigarette between his fingers burned forgotten as he stared at the dirt, trying to feel something for the man buried below. Not just any man: his own flesh and blood. A week ago Craig had been walking around the town of Mortom, breathing air and living life. And in the blink of an eye, he was gone. When his mother had called and told him the news, he felt nothing. When Thatcher left a message about the estate, he returned the call immediately. He had skipped the funeral and come for the stuff . . . but there was no stuff, only a rat under a fridge. A dead rat with a key shoved inside its dead mouth. And with that: the game. And there he stood, about to do the unthinkable for something he wasn’t sure even existed. Nothing had ever felt so wrong to him in his life.
A car drove past and he watched the taillights disappear into the horizon. The gravesite sat far enough back that the highway wasn’t a concern, but if a car drove right up into the cemetery . . . well, then things would get interesting. The temptation to wait until later into the night was strong, but moving dirt was going to be a timely chore, and he maybe—maybe—had six hours until sunup. He wasn’t sure it was even possible to move six feet in six hours with one man and one shovel. The hole he had dug at the shed had knocked the wind out of him, and that was nothing compared to what he was about to do.
He pitched his cigarette and ran a sweaty hand across his forehead. If he was going to do this, it was time to get moving. No more stalling.
He picked up the shovel. It felt impossibly heavy in his hands, and he told himself again how simple it would be to walk away. He could go back to the house, have a few beers, and blissfully pass out on the couch. In the morning he would catch a bus back to Luther and put all this behind him.
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” he whispered.
How many times had their mother uttered those words? Hundreds? Thousands? Never had the phrase felt more apt. And he truly believed what he told Kate earlier: some things were meant to stay buried. He believed that. He did.
But some things had to be discovered.
Craig hadn’t been insane. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. There was entirely too much method in this madness, and that meant Craig had been driven by another force; one as equally powerful, destructive and unpredictable. Mary could talk until she was blue in the face about how awful he had treated Craig while growing up, but no amount of childhood teasing could drive a man to this level of hate. There was more to the story; more buried below the surface.
And that was why he couldn’t walk away.
There was tomorrow to think about. And the next day. And the day after. He would spend every day of the rest of his life, wondering what it all meant, never knowing the full truth. Never understanding why it had come to this.
And that was unacceptable.
So there he stood. The alternative was simple. Dig six feet into the ground, break open the coffin, and pry the book from Craig’s rotting fingers. If that was what needed to be done, then that was what he was going to do. Right or wrong. End of story.
“No choice,” he said.
He raised the shovel.