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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns (hardcover, $26.95)

It's been a while since Stephen Dobyns released a novel. (Carolyn really likes his "Saratoga" series and gave one of them an MBTB star, if I remember correctly.) This (so far) standalone novel, "The Burn Palace," is a cross between "Our Town" and "The X-Files."

For about the first hundred pages, we meet the people of Brewster, Rhode Island, a small town that used to have only small town problems. It was hard to figure out who the alpha character was; Dobyns introduces many residents and each one has at least a paragraph attached. Actually, the next couple hundred pages does much the same thing: more characters and more little stories.

Woody Potter turns out to be a pivotal character. He is a state police detective. He is a veteran of Iraq. He is, unfortunately for his brand-new ex-girlfriend, also the strong, silent type and has difficulty expressing his emotions, which is directly responsible for making his girlfriend an ex.

Bobby Anderson, another state police detective, also bears watching.

Woody and Bobby have the unenviable task of joining forces with other law enforcement types, including the token buffoon in the barrel shape of the local "acting" chief of police in Brewster, to figure out what the heck is with all the woo-woo stuff going on in Brewster. First a newborn baby is stolen from the hospital and a snake left in his place. Then there are rumors and accusations of satanic rites and witchcraft. And there's an ominous and unprecedented gathering of coyotes in the area. Usually timid creatures, these coyotes are aggressive and wide-ranging.

"The Burn Palace" is biographies stitched together by a trickle of a sinister plot. In terms of action, the tension doesn't rev up until the last eighty or so pages, although there are a few jump-from-your-seat moments before that. There's also an awkward (or satiric, if you want to give the author the benefit of the doubt) sex scene. However, most of the bios are interesting, some of them clever (state police detective Beth Lajoie, for instance), some evoking pathos (e.g., Ernest Hartmann, the first murder victim, who was scalped to boot), and some just odd (e.g., young Baldo Bonaldo of fart machine fame). The most intriguing character is the narrator, a voice that sometimes has more shape than in most third-person novels, like the Stage Director in "Our Town."

Could Dobyns have done with fewer pages? Yes.

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