"Grist Mill Road": In Even Colder Blood

Posted January 16, 2018 5:28 p.m. EST

The crime is brutal and shocking and immediate. A 13-year-old girl, arms bound to a tree, is shot repeatedly with a BB gun, 37 times in all, one of the shots going straight through her eye. The perpetrator is a teenage boy. The girl is left to bleed to death.

That’s the arresting beginning of Christopher J. Yates’ “Grist Mill Road,” a whydunnit that delves deep into the secrets linking the main characters in this macabre vignette: Hannah, the victim; Matthew, the teenager with the gun; and Patrick, another boy who is present but does not intervene. Twisting backward and forward in time, entering the minds of each character in turn, Yates examines both how they reached this point and what happens years later, when the past wreaks havoc with the present.

Surprise No. 1: Hannah did not die after all. As the story picks up in 2008, 26 years later, she is alive, albeit with one eye, and living in Manhattan with her husband, who turns out to be Patrick. (That is surprise No. 2.) Even more interesting, from the point of view of the thriller reader too often disappointed by plots that sink like soufflés under the weight of their poorly mixed ingredients, Matthew unexpectedly reappears in their lives. This freaks out everyone, us included. It takes a long time to figure out what exactly he is up to.

So many thrillers concern the gradual unearthing of long-buried mysteries whose facts are known only to a few, or only imperfectly by many. Their success or failure rests on the sophistication and (relative) plausibility of the plots, the richness of the characters and, perhaps most of all, the cleverness of the pacing — how artfully the truth is meted out, like little doses of a drug. We want to be simultaneously satisfied and longing for more.

Yates’ previous book, “Black Chalk,” had a delicious premise: an escalating game of dare over the years among friends who meet at Oxford. But it didn’t, in the end, prove as thrilling as it might have. This one is more sophisticated, starting from the fully realized stories the characters are awarded in the service of an elegant narrative.

When we catch up with him later, Patrick appears to be suffering the most of the three. (His narrative appears as a kind of first-person journal addressed to his psychiatrist, though it’s clear he’s writing for himself.) Laid off from a bank, he fills his days stalking his former boss, cooking intricate meals and working on an elaborate website devoted to Red Moose Barn, the restaurant he dreams of opening.

Though he ended up saving Hannah’s life all those years ago, he has never told her the full story: where he was during the shooting and what kept him from intervening. When he learns, years after the fact, that Hannah did not see him at the scene and is unaware of his complicity, the burden is more than he can bear.

“This revelation has become the monstrous secret that paces the perimeter of our marriage, like something that prowls in the shadows, a dangerous creature awaiting its moment, the right time to strike,” he says. “To have kept the truth to myself for so long feels like a crime in itself.”

If Patrick feels like both criminal and victim, punishing himself with his secret culpability, Hannah appears to be doing just fine, thanks. A crime reporter at a Daily News-style tabloid, she works out of the Shack — the reporters’ row of offices at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan — covering grisly murders and trading banter with a seen-it-all central-casting cop. She’s at work on a true-crime story about her girlhood experience, which, we realize, forms the book’s meta-narrative.

“Just as with my favorite book, ‘In Cold Blood,'” she writes, “this story you’re reading once started out as a perfectly ordinary, everyday tale. Until, very suddenly, it wasn’t.”

Into this intriguing setup comes something even better: a message on Patrick’s website from someone identifying himself as a fan with a business proposition. Who this turns out to be, what his proposal is, and the intricate pattern of misunderstandings, hopes and delusions that connects him to Patrick and Hannah — that’s what we gradually discover.

But along the way we learn about the past, and what drew Patrick, Hannah and Matthew to one another back in the rural New York community where they grew up. All of them — Hannah, rich from her family’s cement fortune; Patrick, the fallen-from-grace son of a local politician; and Matthew, who has a surprisingly soulful sensibility despite his father’s abuse and his reputation as a delinquent — turn out to be both victim and perpetrator in a crime that is less straightforward than it appears. Whether they understand it or not, the characters have been propping themselves up by their complex web of misunderstandings and lies.

As Patrick says at one point: “The reality is there are more than two sides to most stories. Truth is seldom a lens, truth is a kaleidoscope.”

Not all of the motivations ring entirely true, and I’m not sure I fully believe the explanation for the central crime. But it doesn’t really matter. You have to work hard to follow the winding road Yates sends us down, and the drive is full of pleasantly unpleasant surprises.

Publication Notes:

“Grist Mill Road”

By Christopher J. Yates

342 pages. Picador. $26.