‘Tis strange, but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
–Lord Byron, “Don Juan”
On Father’s Day weekend, my sons “kidnapped” me and took me to Chicago. They’d arranged the hotel, the entertainment, the dinner reservations, the works. So on Saturday morning, Zach drove up from Bloomington and we rode together to the Windy City. Austin drove down from Madison, Wis., to meet us.
On the way to a Cubs game that afternoon on the El, Zach pointed out a transit ad for a new book called “So Cold the River.” He reminded me that we met the author, Bloomington-based Michael Koryta, at an IU College of Arts and Sciences awards ceremony a few years ago.
I looked closer. The ad featured blurbs from several famous authors and a movie director. Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and Ridley Scott sang Koryta’s praises.
A few weeks later, with some rare reading time on my hands, I fired up the Kindle and bought Koryta’s book.
“So Cold the River” packs power as a can’t-put-it-down ghost story. But the real treat for me was the setting—in and around the restored West Baden Springs Hotel and the towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs in southern Indiana.
Consider this description of our hero, Eric Shaw, a failed filmmaker driving to French Lick from his home in Chicago.
“It was a six-hour drive, the final third a hell of a lot more pleasant than the first two. Getting out of the city and into Indiana was a nightmare in itself, and then Eric was rewarded by only as bleak a drive as he could think of, Chicago to Indianapolis. South of Indy, though, things began to turn. The flatlands turned into hills, the endless fields filled with trees, the straight road began to curve…
“Past Bloomington to Bedford, and then the highway hooked and lost a lane in a town called Mitchell and began to dip and rise as it carved through the hills. Everything was green, lush, and alive, and now and then flatbed trucks loaded with fresh-quarried limestone lumbered by. There weren’t many houses along this stretch of the highway, but if Eric had had a dollar for every one with a basketball hoop outside, he’d have been a rich man by the time he hit Paoli.”
Even Bill Cook, whose passion and pocketbook made the hotel restoration possible, is hailed by an old-woman character who loved the place and long hoped it would be preserved.
“Her faith had been rewarded. Bill Cook, the man’s name. Awful plain name, she thought, but he’d made a few billion dollars on it with a medical company up in Bloomington and then he’d found his way down here and not only seen what had to be done but could afford to have it done.”
Five-hundred fast-paced pages of ghosts, wicked weather, suspicious spring water, bomb threats, death threats, kidnappings, history and mystery follow for Eric and Koryta’s readers. Scary stuff.
The following week, in preparation for a few more days of travel and hotels, I needed another keep-me-awake read. I checked the Kindle best-seller list for a popular page-turner and came up with John Gilstrap’s “No Mercy.”
All of a sudden, I’m reading about the kidnapping and violent rescue of a Ball State University music major on a farm in southern Indiana, a dastardly defense contractor in Muncie, a beautiful former FBI agent turned Hoosier sheriff, and an Indiana governor whose “name was already on people’s lips as a future Democratic nominee for president of the United States.” (Gilstrap describes this governor as “a notorious fan of tax-and-spend financial strategies.” But, hey, it’s fiction.)
Once again, Indiana proved a perilous place.
Home at last and thoroughly steeped in cloak-and-dagger, shoot-’em-up, blow-em-up Hoosier thrillers, I flipped through back issues of The Indianapolis Star to see what I’d missed while I was gone.
“Nine wounded in 3 shootings Downtown”
In other words, life imitates art, imitates life.
The difference, of course, is that Indianapolis’ downtown shootings involved real bullets spilling real blood. Middle-of-the-night emergency-room pain, not wee-hours, edge-of-your seat suspense. Literal run for your life, not literary run to the bookstore for the latest sequel.
I like my thrillers. But, please, leave the fear and loathing to my imagination, not my neighborhood.•
Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org