Maybe it all began with Graham Greene’s “Brighton Rock’’ in 1938, but there is a variety of modern thriller, created these days by Robert Stone and Denis Johnson at their best, that delivers narrative thrust and beautifully composed sentences by the pageful even as it peels away the thin membrane that separates entertainment from art, and nature from civilization.
Here’s Boston writer William Giraldi adding to the slender ranks of such masterly fiction.
“Hold the Dark’’ opens in a part of Alaska beset by wolves that have come out of the wild and stolen children right out in front of their homes. A woman named Medora Slone from Keelut, a rural snow-covered hamlet that Giraldi describes as a “settlement at the edge of the wild that both welcomed and resisted the wild,” calls on Russell Core, a 60-year-old nature writer and world-renowned wolf expert, to help avenge the loss of her 6-year-old to one of these beasts.
Core, who has his own problems including a wife felled by a stroke, views Alaska as a landscape of dread, where you might take a life or have life taken from you, as quickly as a brief shift in temperature. Nevertheless, dressed in the protective winter garb belonging to Slone’s soldier husband, who is away on duty in one of our Mideast wars, Core sets out across a winter landscape comprised of “so many miles of tundra whole states could fit on its frozen breadth.” Here he recognizes “that man belongs neither in civilization nor nature — because we are aberrations between two states of being.”
As it happens Core’s attempts to track and kill the offending wolf serve as a mere prelude to the return of Vernon Slone, husband and father, who attempts to take revenge on the boy’s killer. But it turns out the guilty party is not who it initially seems to be. The boy’s frozen body turns up, apparently a victim of a human killer rather than wolves.
The disturbed father shoots a pair of detectives to keep them from getting to the killer first. Cheeon, a nihilistic boyhood friend of Slone’s, jumps into the fray by gunning down a batch of cops. As Marium, another detective on the case, witnesses it: “The rounds came faster than he’d ever seen or heard. He could see the flame from the long barrel. . . . It pivoted smoothly up and down, right and left, attached to a tripod. Cheeon wasn’t quitting to reload. He didn’t need to.”
The rest of the story recounts Slone’s pursuit of the killer and the detective’s hunt, with Core’s help, to find the homicidal war veteran before he kills again.
Throughout the reader is swept along on the energy supplied by the sharp and sometimes odd sentence rhythms. Sometimes they focus on the characters, as when Core wakes in the middle of the night in the Slone shack to see Medora “sitting in the steam of the tub, scrubbing herself raw with a bath brush, her expression one of pained resolve.”
Other times it comes in descriptions of the dreary and overbearing setting, which becomes a character itself: “The snow ceased briefly beneath a clearing sky to the east. The coming dawn cast a half halo of light on the horizon, then clouds like great coats hurled in to cloak it. Year’s end at this latitude the sun rose and set in such a truncated arch it seemed it might not find the will to bring the day.”
Fortunately the novelist found the will to bring to life his hypnotic and decidedly idiosyncratic story, a novel that certainly stands out as one of the decade’s best books of its kind, and one that deserves, because of its stylish flaunting of some of our darkest fears, a future readership.
Alan Cheuse, the book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” can be reached at email@example.com.