Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns

Blue Rider press, 2013
480 pp

arc -- my thanks to the publisher for my copy, along with apologies for being so abominably late to post about it

The Burn Palace has all the trappings of the paranormal about it, but once you cut through the supernatural red herrings found throughout this novel, what you have left is a story about crime. (There is one exception, which I'll get to later.) The plot winds through the book at a slow pace, but as you read, you realize that rather than focusing on the mystery at the heart of the story, the author is taking his time to examine life in a small town.  This is one of those novels you'll appreciate for the writing rather than the unraveling of the mystery and its solution, which is pretty obvious after only a short while.

The story is set in Brewster, Rhode Island, once flourishing with a cannery, fishing industry, farms, a quarry, a mill and a thriving downtown in its heyday;  now it's a another little town, a place where two-thirds of the people living there were born, attended school, have work and will probably die. The summer visitors pay the taxes that keep the town going; there's also a popular "holistic health alternative" called "The You Within You," shortened to "You-You," by most of the townspeople, and a casino 30 minutes or so away keeps many of the people employed.  It's not too far from Providence, making it easy for rent boys to come and ply their trade; hookers  find their way here from the big city as well. In this small town one night, a nurse who should have been on duty in the maternity ward of Morgan Memorial hospital was actually having a brief tryst with the chief resident in cardiology.  While she's busy having her fun, someone has taken the Summers baby, less than 24 hours old, and left a snake in its place. This act, combined with more bizarre occurrences than a town this size should experience, leads detective Woody Potter and his partner Bobby Anderson down some strange paths before they find out what exactly what's going on -- but not before a few people are killed in the meantime.

While the solution to the mystery itself was pretty obvious, there are many supernatural/paranormal red herrings in the way to solving it.  The main detective in this story knows that if he can just cut through the smokescreen that there's a perfectly logical explanation for  what's going on, that there must be a "single theory" to bring everything together.  As I said earlier, the mystery is not what makes this book -- it's the way Dobyns creates ambiance and lets his readers peek behind the closed doors of small-town America.  Mistrust of the unknown leads to violence,  a boy watches his stepfather spiral out of control and become a real-life monster because he refuses to take his meds, young girls are terrorized, and the town is saturated in an atmosphere of mass paranoia and mistrust.   What I didn't care for (the exception noted above) was that while the paranormal and supernatural elements are just a thin veneer to cover up the real crimes, Dobyns leaves in a 10 year-old boy who has a talent for telekinesis -- wrong.  This whole thing could have been left out and no one would ever have noticed.  No, No, NO!!!!

Overall, The Burn Palace turned out to be (for me) a kind of a mixed bag -- I liked the writing, I liked the way Dobyns gets into small-town life and the secrets people keep, and I liked the way the detectives shun the paranormal because they know that earthly terrors are behind the town's sudden venture into insanity.   On the other hand, the mystery is super easy to figure out, and presenting a telekinetic boy as a character in a book where there's really nothing paranormal going on was just kind of, well, ridiculous.  It reads quickly, so I'd say give it a try, and if you can, ignore the boy with the weird powers.


  1. I usually like Dobyns and hate paranormal elements. Including them as red herrings does sound cool, but you are absolutely right about the telekinesis stuff. Great review.


    1. I like some horror/paranormal/supernatural fiction but not in my crime. Telekinesis here was out of place and a bit gimmicky. Nice to see you again! I have been away from crime for a while.

  2. I agree the paranormal element was superfluous. Thought it was a good book if you could stick with the disparate story lines until they started coming together. Dobyns tied up the loose ends fairly nicely, though I never did know who put that snake in the basinette.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it