Review: The Burn Palace, Stephen Dobyns

The Burn Palace ★ ★ ★
Stephen Dobyns
Blue Rider Press, 2013
Available Now

Surely fear is the oldest emotion. Not love, not pride, not greed. The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace. ~The Burn Palace

burn palaceLet’s get the Negative Nelly rant out of the way first: I may have just taken too damn long to read this book (it was a hellish work week, and I couldn’t seem to find the time needed to just attack the book and submerse myself in it the way it demands). It starts out really strong — with a great premise — but somewhere along the way, Dobyns has created so many colorful characters and so many plot threads that the book begins to unravel and stall, rather than gain momentum and tightly coil for the final climactic reveal.

I am officially diagnosing this novel with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because there are so many leads to uncover and investigate, as well as so many people to get to know within the borders of this sleepy little Rhode Island town, the narration flits about quickly often jerkily with no discernible pattern, from character to character, plot point to plot point — a busy bee desperate to pollinate ALL the flowers in the garden.

Dobyns almost pulls it off. Parts of this novel work extremely well, but it is messy and misdirected in too many places and dare I say a little bit of the investigation starts to feel like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Alright, that’s harsh. I should retract that.

Dobyns has proven in the past he has the writing chops to create memorable characters and capture the psychology of small towns besieged by fear and paranoia. What didn’t work for me here, worked exceedingly well I thought in The Church of Dead Girls. The difference between that book and this one comes down to narration. While Dead Girls introduces almost as many characters, I feel the story benefits tremendously from the voice of a single narrator telling the story in first-person. It gives the novel a cohesiveness and determined direction that this one seems lacking in.

Okay, those are my complaints. Here are some things I enjoyed, because overall, I did like this book very much. When I did get the time to sit with it for a few hours, I found it casting a spell over me. The descriptive prose sucked me into the streets and lives of Brewster, Rhode Island. Stephen King has been very supportive of Dobyns in the past, blurbing his books, and this time is no different. King writes:

“I entered the small-town world Stephen Dobyns creates with such affection, horror, and fidelity….Dobyns has always been good, but this book is authentically great. The characters are vivid originals, not a stereotype among them, and the story pulled this reader in so completely that I didn’t want the book to end, and actually did go back to re-read the first chapter.”

Super generous, yes? Reading Dobyns you can definitely sense a “King vibe” going on and it is not a stretch to say that Dobyns has been influenced by King’s New England tales of the macabre and small town sinister shenanigans. Dobyns appears to be paying homage to King specifically here with such references as:

  • The novel opens with a baby being stolen from hospital room 217. Later, an abusive father states: “No boy likes to be corrected.” (The Shining)
  • One of the lead detectives is named Bobby Anderson. (The Tommyknockers)
  • Another main character describes reading The Shining, Cujo and The Dark Half.

Okay, small things to be sure, but they jumped out at me despite that and made me smile.

I also really enjoyed how the kids are written in this story. They are quirky and precocious without coming off as bratty and annoying. They are King-worthy kids, the highest compliment I can pay. I just wish there had been more of them and less of some of the other plot threads.

So that’s it. If only I had more glowing praise to offer. This is a dense book that demands your attention and patience. If you like a challenge, and lots of colorful characters, you may just love this. Dobyns is a great writer and I would never discourage anyone from picking up one of his books.

***Review of ARC provided by publisher through NetGalley.

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