For as long as I can remember, suspense has been my favorite genre. Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby, virtually any Hitchcock film, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Silence of the Lambs (either the book or the film), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or “The Cask of Amontillado”—all works of art, in my humble opinion. Note that the most recent of these works, the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, is almost 20-years-old.
In today’s world, films like Saw and Hostel often pass for suspense, and Disturbia passes for Hitchcock. Certainly, suspense filled novels still abound, and many of them offer a good scare along with a lot of clichés; a tacky romantic subplot, and sorry imagery. Literary suspense—a story that scares with style, panache, symbolism, and metaphor along with a good dose of psychological terror—almost seems to be a thing of the past. That’s why books like The Poacher’s Son are not to be read but cherished.
The Poacher’s Son, Paul Doiron’s debut novel, is pure, unadulterated literary suspense. Beautifully crafted and perfectly paced, it makes you tuck your feet up under you while reading, and occasionally look nervously over your shoulder—just to make certain no one is there.
Mike Bowditch is the main character of The Poacher’s Son and has always had a difficult relationship with his father, Jack. Still Mike can’t believe that his father would actually murder anyone, let alone a police officer. So when Jack is arrested for murder, escapes from police custody, and asks Mike for help, Mike simply has to find the real killer and protect his father. Garnering little sympathy or understanding from family, friends, and colleagues, Mike risks everything including his life to find the truth. Of course, Doiron’s writing is exceptional—he would never say anything as clichéd as “Mike risks everything including his life to find the truth”, even though that is exactly what happens.
Mike is an interesting character. Despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, his father was a poacher, Mike is a game warden, or in his own words: a cop with the forest for a beat. His musings about his career choice also say a lot about his character:
A number of years ago, some Hollywood producers made a movie about a man-eating crocodile that had somehow taken up residence in the frigid waters of a northern Maine lake. The hero of this motion picture was supposed to be a Maine game warden. Prior to the filming, the actor who had been chosen to play the part of the warden took a look at the summer uniform we wear… and refused to put it on. He said we looked like the Brazilian militia. Instead the actor opted for a more casual outfit of khaki shirt and blue jeans, the better to combat the killer croc and romance Bridget Fonda. So much for realism.
Somewhat quirky characters seem to be one of Doiron’s specialties. There’s Charley, for example, a retired game warden and part time pilot who eats moose jerky and sounds “like a fortune cookie”, and Bud Thompson, who owned a pig named Pork Chop: “‘I loved that pig.’ He swung the rifle off of his shoulder and held it up by the strap… ‘He was the smartest pig I ever had!’”
Another of Doiron’s strengths: setting the scene. His rich descriptions of the Maine wilderness, colored with little social commentaries, will most likely resonate with all readers:
Old clear-cuts and plantations of new saplings showed themselves as pale green patches against the darker green of the second-growth woods. From the air the forest looked like the commercial crop that it was…But still there was a wilderness here—at least in the speed with which the forest healed its scars. I saw a deer browsing in a clear-cut, a big bull moose using a logging road as a short cut from one bog to another. Nature will forgive humankind just about anything, and what it won’t forgive I hope never to witness.
The setting and the characters both contribute to the greatest strength of this novel—the psychological tension and realism. It’s the psychological aspects that make the book suspenseful—not the violence or the murders. By the middle of the story, it’s not clear who Mike doubts and dislikes more: his father or himself. That is perhaps the most haunting element of the book—Mike’s self-doubt and the universality of this self-doubt.
Everyone wants to think they can spot a monster, a murderer, that they would know if their own father was really a cold-blooded killer. After all who knows a father better than his own son? If Mike doesn’t know whether or not his father is capable of murder, what can he know with any certainty? It’s that age-old, universal question: Who can you trust when you don’t trust yourself?
Mike doesn’t know who he can trust and therefore neither does the audience. That’s what keeps readers on the edge of their seats, looking over their shoulders, and falling asleep with the lights on.
I’ll admit—I approached the ending of the novel with trepidation. So many wonderful suspense stories fall apart in the last chapters. This one doesn’t. The Poacher’s Son is a great read with a fantastic ending. The best part: it’s not really over. Doiron plans on writing a series of books featuring Mike Bowditch. I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m hoping Doiron brings back Charley and a few other characters from this story, as well.