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by Lou Berney
William Morrow, September 2023
244 pages
ISBN: 0062663860

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If in high school you loved George Eliot's SILAS MARNER, the heartwarming tale of a miserly handloom weaver who loses his life savings but rescues a little girl and learns the meaning of love and community, you'll also enjoy Edgar-winning novelist Lou Berney's new psychological thriller DARK RIDE. It pursues a similar path. If you hated SILAS MARNER, or were spared the ordeal of reading it, you may also very well like DARK RIDE, because it is quite a ride.

DARK RIDE's flawed hero is a character possibly less sympathetic than pre-conversion Marner: twenty-one-year-old Hardy "Hardly" Reed. A college dropout and daily pothead, Hardly works at a truly American Gothic Wild West-Meet-Universal-Horror themed roadside carnival as the undead "Sheriff" who apprehends "zombies" several times a day. A former foster child, he doesn't trust most grownups, avoids attachments, and has a tense, grudging relationship with another young man, Preston, who was fostered by the same "parents." Unlike the bookish Preston, Hardly has gone hardly anywhere since. His other acquaintances are more synchronous stoners than friends.

One day after work, Hardly tries to deal with the consequences of letting his parking pass expire. He follows a thirty-something blonde woman into the parking office. Outside the office wait two children: blonde cherubs, uncannily patient, a girl and a boy, maybe seven and six. Hardly sees that their clothes partially cover sets of cigarette burns. The former foster child in him is galvanised to action. He will find out the mother's identity, call Child Protective Services (CPS), and save these kids from further abuse. They might be young enough to be only minimally damaged by the abuse and their removal--if he can get CPS to do something in time. CPS, however, refuses to follow up. When Hardly keeps pressing, he realizes that they are not overworked nor complacent: they know not to get involved. Why? Who is these kids' abuser and what power does that person have? Can Hardly and his acquaintances do anything to save the children?

Hardly is an interestingly inept yet driven and ultimately heroic protagonist. The allies whom he ropes into his quest are not the usual archetypes of crime fiction, and that's refreshing and bracing. They include a K-12 teacher who, DARK RIDE suggests, belongs to a group society never acknowledges as containing actual heroes. This point is made subtly. It's never stated, and DARK RIDE is never preachy. Nevertheless, it has a connection to real outrages through its introduction of the CPS that is rare in most fiction. Indeed, its twisty plot examines middle-American horrors in ways far more creative and genuine than the typical "secrets in suburbia" mystery (a subgenre this reviewer has only lately learned to name).

Thankfully, the children aren't really characters, no more than the Maltese Falcon is. If they had been, they'd have to have personalities, behaviors, and particulars. They'd be impossibly cute or problematically not-always-well-behaved. Berney keeps them abstract because they have no control over their treatment or fate. He focuses, with acute attention, on the adults who do and particularly on Hardly as he explores his motivations for trying with increasing desperation to help them, incurring increasing levels of personal risk and involvement with other human beings. He is propelled towards a realistically messy ending that is both a surprise and the fate he has long been creating for himself. DARK RIDE is a very dark ride, but one worth taking.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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