He thought he could get them.
He didn’t understand who they were, though. What they were. She could see them again and, worse, hear them, those calm voices in a beautiful, still night. Could smell the old smoke and the old blood. Then the fresh versions that followed.
She prayed for her husband then, prayed that he would not meet them, would not hear them, would not smell them. It felt too late, though. She’d slept too long, and he’d made his choice too early.
This passage is one of the more striking in Michael Koryta’s thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead, but it’s not a singular instance. The whole novel is written this way, with beautiful language and structure that chills the reader. There are a half dozen other examples I can think of offhand, some more chilling than this one. I have been thinking a lot about Those Who Wish Me Dead since I finished it in a 3-night rush. The title is somewhat archaic, but oh so fitting for the tone. The “Me” in the title is adaptable in the narrative, as is the idea of killer and victim. Yet the starkness and formality of that title make it perfect for the book.
Jace Wilson sees something he shouldn’t, and the authorities place him into hiding. Because the case involves dirty cops, the usual channels to protect a witness are compromised, so they get creative. Jace’s hired bodyguard had attended a survival camp in Montana the year before, and she hits on this as the perfect place for Jace to lie low. The camp is run by Ethan and Allison Serbin on their ranch in the mountains. They reluctantly agree and soon Jace arrives at the ranch under an assumed name. Complicating matters, Ethan and Allison don’t know which of their new charges is Jace thinking this would make it better to not treat him differently. Very quickly the murderous Blackwell brothers pick up Jace’s trail and they intend to silence the witness that got away.
The narrative in Those Who Wish Me Dead moves fast and has little fat. The why anything is happening is largely a MacGuffin. Jace is in mortal danger with men trying to kill him. It is essentially a chase in the wilderness but the action is entirely driven by character actions. Complicating things is the individuality of everyone involved. More than once a character underestimates or wrongly assumes, what another character is going to do. Who these people are, what they know, and the experiences they have had are critical to understanding the choices they make. Koryta does a great job making it clear why characters choose one way, and then how that affects the action as it unfolds.
These characters are all well-drawn but the standout is the villainous Blackwell brothers. These two men are one of the more terrifying creations I have come across in a book in quite a while. They reminded me of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The difference is both Blackwell brothers, Patrick and Jack, are endlessly loquacious. As one character puts it, they speak as if they are the only two people in the world, and they’re the lords of it. Here’s a sample of their dialogue:
“Ethan tells me the searchers found no sign of the boy. Now, so far Ethan has had a propensity for telling the truth. Would you say I received it this time Patrick?”
“I would Jack, I would. I’ve been with them most of the day. There was no sighting. They spent some time at a fire tower where they spoke with a lookout, and then moved on with renewed purpose. As if she’s said something that encouraged them.”
“A perfect match to Ethan’s account. As I said, I believe he’s an honest man.”
This entire exchange takes place in front of Ethan. They speak as if no one else is there. They are exceedingly polite, they don’t curse, and they never threaten anyone if they do not intend to follow through. By this point in the book, I had read the lengths they will go to accomplish their goal. I knew the character of the men but they remain enigmatic through the end which makes them even more terrifying. Cold, methodical, seemingly flawless, they are a formidable enemy for our heroes.
Speaking of, the heroes of the book are also well written and compelling. Ethan is an expert on survival training, yet has never really had to put his skills to the test. Hannah is still reeling from a horrific forest fire that she barely escaped alive, and blames herself for the deaths of those who were not so lucky. Jace exhibits intelligence, terror, and innocence seemingly all at the same time. He has seen the lengths the Blackwell brothers will go and what they are capable of. He does not expect to escape them a second time when they inevitably meet. This fatalism permeates the novel. Nothing is easy for these characters, any of them. Yet they fight on anyway for their own purposes.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a tense and, at times, cruel thriller that is ultimately about hope and redemption in an unforgiving place. This elevates it for me to a full five stars. I am not convinced the plot hangs together perfectly but ultimately it is irrelevant. This is not a book I will soon forget.
One note; if you have seen Taylor Sheridan’s 2021 film adaptation, the book is different in many ways. The setup is different, characters are changed, and the ending is very different. I enjoyed the movie, and I understand why some of the changes were made, but the book is superior. However, after reading the book I have a new appreciation for the casting of the movie. In the novel, Hannah is 27, but Angelina Jolie plays her in the movie almost exactly as she is written on the page and she fits the way the character is described. Jon Bernthal as Ethan was another masterstroke of casting. I only wish the movie had retained his backstory from the book rather than taking the lazy route of making him a cop. Still, the movie is worth watching and serves as an interesting comparison to the book.