John Hart's Down River

John Hart began his writing career with three mystery blockbusters. The King of Lies (2006) was nominated for an Edgar award while Down River (2007) and The Last Child (2009) both won this prestigious award for best mystery novel of the year. All three novels are set in North Carolina – the author’s home – and all have been New York Times bestsellers. Hart, who has degrees in French literature, accounting, and law, has worked as a banker, stockbroker, lawyer, helicopter mechanic, and bartender. He has since turned to full-time writing, fulfilling what he acknowledges to be a long-held dream.

Down River begins with 28-year-old Adam Chase returning to North Carolina after living in New York for 5 years. Adam had left home at age 23 after being charged with and acquitted of murder. His stepmother had testified against him and his father took her side. After Adam returns home, a family friend is brutally beaten and a second person is found murdered. Once again Adam is suspected.

Down River is a powerful, elemental novel, reminiscent of the dramatic events in Greek tragedies. The plot itself is an intricately conceived tale. Janet Maslin points out that the narrative is underpinned by biblical events. “Adam” Chase is evicted from the garden; he loses Danny “Faith,” but is inspired by “Grace” Shepherd. The story is profoundly affecting and the ending is truly remarkable.

The heart and soul of this book is the theme of family. In his prefatory material to the novel, Hart writes:

I would describe my books as thrillers or mysteries, but they revolve, also, around family. . . . I have often said that family dysfunction makes for rich literary soil, and it truly does. It is fertile ground, the perfect place to cultivate secrets and misdeeds, grow them into explosive stories. Betrayals cut more deeply, pain lingers longer, and memory becomes a timeless thing. (vii)

As Gordon Campbell observes in his Boston Globe review of the book, “This is a novel about the power of family, how it defines and follows us, no matter how far or fast we run.” The story presents a series of impossible choices, many of them pitting one family member against another.

“I like thrillers that have literary value,” Hart told the Sun Sentinel. “‘Literary’ can mean different things, but to me it means character-rich, emotionally powerful, detailed, interactive stories in which characters live and breathe. If I could have a legacy, it would be to write great mystery thrillers with those elements that people cannot put down.” Down River is certainly this type of novel.

Hart, John. Down River. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.