Black River Falls, by Ed Gorman — a book review

My reading habits, like my television and movie viewing habits, are largely genre-driven.

I am a confessed bibliophile, an avid reader from a young age. I have read all types of books, fiction and nonfiction. If you looked at my current reading list, you’d see that I’m reading an historical novel, a science fiction novel, a crime novel, a collection of essays from the early 20th century, a nonfiction history of Caribbean pirates, a nonfiction book on theoretical physics, and one on music theory. This doesn’t count the comic book collections I’m reading. As you can see, I like to keep several books in rotation, much in the same way that I watch movies and television shows.

Are my tastes eclectic? I think so. But, time and again, I return to certain genres: science fiction; westerns; mystery/crime; and, fantasy/horror. At least, in fiction. In nonfiction, you can usually count on science and history appearing on the list more often than not.

Ed Gorman was a prolific writer who wrote in nearly all of the genres listed above. I’m mostly familiar with his work in mystery/crime and westerns. He used several pen names, and also published many essays and short stories. He published his first novel in 1984, when he was forty-three years old, then continued writing and publishing at a frenetic pace until he passed away in 2016. He published two to three books a year.

Gorman was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Many of his stories are set in small towns in Midwestern America. Black River Falls is set in fictional Black River Falls, Iowa.

I read the Leisure Books paperback edition of this novel, which was published in 1997. I mention the publisher only because the Leisure edition contains a huge spoiler on the back cover. I won’t do that to you. If you read the Leisure version, do not read the back cover.

I’ve read other Gorman novels, including some written under pen names. I don’t know that I’ve read enough of his books to compare them to each other. Gorman’s writing style is accessible in this novel. He’s an easy read. I once read an interview with Gorman where he named Ed McBain (the pen name of Evan Hunter) as one of his major influences. I can see that. Simple sentences. A plot that moves at a measured pace. Relatable characters. The occasional story twist that you really can’t anticipate unless the publisher puts it on the back cover copy.

I found Black River Falls to be an entertaining read. At first, I thought it was going to be a mystery—a whodunnit. But, the chief bad guy is revealed long before the climax of the novel, and then the story becomes a thriller. The reader knows some things that the other main characters don’t, which increases the tension. The effect is rather Hitchcockian. The setting—the river, the falls, the woods—is richly drawn, and I could tell that this was an author writing what he knew.

I’ll set the stage for you.

Lynn Tyler is a veterinarian in the town of Black River Falls. Her own father killed his mistress years ago, and he paid for his crime with his life, but the sins of the fathers often fall upon the children. Lynn has felt like an outsider for much of her life and career because she was the daughter of a killer. She is the single mother to two sons. Michael, the older brother, is charming and handsome, well-liked and successful by the standards of their small town, both in business (he owns a video rental store—how times have changed) and with the ladies. Younger son Ben is more sensitive and nerdy, lacking in self-confidence, and clearly punching above his weight class as develops a strong relationship with the beautiful Allison. Ben intends to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a vet.

Ben is clearly intended to be the lead character from the beginning of the novel. He is a good guy, but in showing this to the reader, Gorman sometimes gets a bit too saccharine. Ben can come off as too sensitive and weak. There is a scene involving the ultimate fate of a sick kitten that was a bit too melodramatic for my tastes. Ben thinks about this kitten several other times during the story, and I don’t want to identify with him then. Sure, I’m a sensitive guy, too, I think. Clearly not a cat person, but still . . . we want to be able to identify with the stronger traits of our main characters, not their weaknesses. Ben does begin to grow a backbone at some point in the story. He’s just difficult to like before then.

Not surprising in this sort of story, the beautiful Allison has secrets of her own that affect the Tyler family. But, she’s not the only one with secrets. Characters die, truths are revealed, the falls that give the story its name are the setting for a couple of pivotal scenes in the novel. The backstory about Lynn Tyler’s murderer father does actually factor into the conclusion of the book, but only peripherally. It’s a brief, relatively shallow meditation on how crimes committed by one family member affect the entire family.

This was not my favorite Gorman book to date. I would call it serviceable. It gets the job done adequately, but doesn’t win any points for beauty or style. I could imagine this story as a television movie. A largely forgettable movie, perhaps. One that is entertaining in the moment, yet doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Since I was watching the television series Twin Peaks while I read this story, which was published a few years after the series ended, I found myself comparing the two. There’s nothing supernatural or otherworldly in Black River Falls, no owls, giants or inhabiting spirits. But, there is a parallel to be made in the setting, the falls, quirky characters and a certain soap-opera sensibility. While maybe not the stuff of great literature, it is entertaining.

Gorman was proud to be considered a genre writer, which means he considered himself at heart to be an entertainer. Mission accomplished, Mr. Gorman.

Firewater’s A-Secret-So-Ugly-That-His-Life-is-Changed-Forever Report Card: B

This one is a good mental palate cleanser to read between a Lawrence Block and a Michael Connelly.

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