WICKED RIVER – Jenny Milchman
For years there has been a resurgence in the mystery/thriller world that I call the Nordic Noir invasion. That movement has been led by terrific writers like Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg, etc… Meanwhile, back stateside, there has been a lesser known but just as powerful new sub-genre in the mystery/thriller world I refer to as Adirondack Noir.
The Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York are majestic, mysterious, beautiful and full of history and stories. Several authors have set their stories in this area, which can be just as stark and desolate as those novels based in the Nordic region of Europe. One of the authors at the forefront of the Adirondack Noir movement is Jenny Milchman. She lives in the gorgeous Hudson Valley region of New York just North of NYC and has set her novels a little bit further north in the Adirondacks.
WICKED RIVER is Milchman’s finest work to date — and that is saying something! It is a dark, complex fever-dream of a novel that you just cannot shake or wake up from. There is an air of mystery around the entire novel and the characters are each so complicated it is difficult to ever get a good grip on exactly what is going on or driving them. It’s best to just sit back and go along for the ride.
The action begins at the wedding of Natalie and Doug Larson. They are a well-to-do, NYC couple who have chosen the Adirondacks not only for their wedding ceremony but also their honeymoon. Just prior to the wedding, Doug and two members of his bridal party are seen having a heated discussion with two strangers who seemingly arrived out of nowhere to confront them. This is witnessed not only by Natalie but also her niece, Mia. Throughout the novel, Milchman switches between Doug, Natalie and Mia for different points of view. This verbal altercation is strange yet quite meaningful to the plot and the horrors that are to come.
After the ceremony, Doug and Natalie begin their honeymoon amidst the six million acre park that makes up the Adirondack Mountain range. They have chosen to start off their new life together in adventurous fashion by going on an ‘off road’ adventure that will include canoeing, camping out and foraging for themselves out in the open wilderness. There are checkpoints they are required to make or go to in case of trouble. What happens next is completely unexpected (and I will not reveal all here lest I spoil it for other readers). Let’s just leave it that Doug and Natalie find themselves far off-track and injured. They are also not alone. WICKED RIVER opened with a scene that depicted a female hiker being abducted by a strange figure. It is this very same figure, who we later know is named Kurt, that comes upon Doug and Natalie. At first it seems like Kurt is their savior as he helps nurse them both back to health and provides them with food and shelter.
However, Kurt is the Adirondacks version of the boogey-man. A man who has been living off the grid for so long that he has lost almost any semblance of humanity and is beyond dangerous. Kurt has created his own little world in which only he gets to decide who lives or dies in it. Those who are not marked for death he gets obsessive about — and there may be no means to escape. Now, he has focused his attention on Doug and Natalie. Any weird feelings that had already started in the young relationship between the newlyweds are quickly put aside as they will need all their wits about them to overcome Kurt. It is sort of like DELIVERANCE meets the HUNGER GAMES as there are many pitfalls in Kurt’s Adirondack Kingdom and he is the sole games master.
Doug and Natalie figure out fairly quickly that Kurt is an unstable figure they need to get far away from. They know this long before they realize that the jerky they are eating is NOT venison. There is a scene where they come upon Kurt’s ‘smokehouse’ that was straight out of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The novel comes with a reader’s guide of questions as well as an insightful Q&A with Jenny Milchman. What I found most amusing is that she does not consider herself a writer of thrillers. She has a point, because WICKED RIVER is so well written and full of great characters and stunning plot twists that only a master writer could have created it — thereby labeling her a thriller writer comes across as diminishing this accomplishment. WICKED RIVER is an amazing, hard to describe novel that borders on literary horror and will definitely haunt your dreams and serve as a cautionary tale for anyone seeking the adventure of an off road visit to the Adirondacks!