The Burn Palace: A Novel by Stephen Dobyns

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The Burn Palace
480 pages; Blue Rider Press
Everybody knows everybody in Brewster, Rhode Island, and not much happens. It's been that way since the town was founded in the 1600s. Then, in the space of a few days, a newborn disappears from the local hospital, and a corn snake is left in its place; a stranger arrives in town and is gruesomely murdered; and marauding packs of coyotes start attacking civilians. State trooper and Gulf War vet Woody Potter and his colleagues begin to search for links among these outlandish events, sifting through clues that point toward a host of possible causes, from stepfather/stepson hostilities to bizarre cultish rituals. When the focus turns to witchcraft, the book briefly appears to be going off the rails, but the remarkably grounded and totally hilarious characters keep everything engaging—even as they get put through the wringer of the author's relentless plot. The book is further enriched by Dobyns' wonderfully oddball descriptions including Woody's thoughts on the case: "He had an unsettled feeling, as if he were catching a cold, that he realized was fear. This was a new emotion for Woody. He'd felt terror in Iraq when the missile had struck, but never fear. He didn't like how it clung to him... " Congestion might seem an unlikely metaphor to describe the intimate sensation of apprehension—and yet, it rings true. Which is exactly what's so great about this story: It's an exquisitely unexpected, delightfully believable exploration of what normal looks like when it goes through the (evil) looking glass.
— Nathalie Gorman