The book was billed as Appalachian noir, and it certainly lives up to its name. It’s dark, gritty, bloody, and the Southern setting makes a real difference in the story. I was actually reminded a bit of some of Elmore Leonard’s work: Lake Charles depends heavily on a small cast of well-drawn characters and, more importantly, their dialogue. I apparently glossed over the clue on the first page that the book is set in 1979, but this soon became readily apparent. Lynskey does a good job of injecting the time period into the book in ways both big and small throughout. Oh and by the way, the cover’s gorgeous, isn’t it?

Plot spoilers follow.

The protagonist is Brendan Fishback, a young man who faces a first degree murder charge at the start of the novel. He’s been accused of murdering Ashleigh Sizemore, the daughter of a local bigwig, with whom he partied at a concert then returned to a seedy motel for some sex and drugs. When Brendan woke up, Ashleigh was dead. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) Brendan’s pretty sure that he didn’t kill the girl, but thanks to a drug haze, can’t quite recall exactly what happened. Brendan (now out on bail awaiting trial), his twin sister, Edna, and her husband, Cobb, head to the eponymous Lake Charles, Tennessee for a relaxing weekend of fishing and jet skiing. Two problems turn what should be a fun weekend into a nightmare: (1) Edna disappears; and (2) Brendan and Cobb discover that Lake Charles is the site of a massive marijuana farm guarded by brutal thugs. Brendan also discovers that his sister’s kidnapping and the industrial-sized pot farm are intimately connected with the murder he’s been charged with. Jerry Kuzawa, Cobb’s father with a mysterious past, soon gets involved with the quest for vengeance, and he’s an eminently enjoyable character. Brendan’s dreams are an integral part of the story, and I was initially a little concerned that it would result in silliness, but it’s a well-done element in the novel, and a good vehicle for his memories of that fateful drug-fueled night gradually resurfacing.

There’s a stunningly high body count in the book, though I won’t spoiler the ending of the book, but it’s fairly satisfying (if a bit more positive than we’d expect from a “noir” novel). The setting – both time and place – play a major role in the book and is a real strength of the novel. I liked the quirky, unique characters a great deal, and while I occasionally got a little tangled up in the dialogue, they were well done (though maybe just a little too blasé about killing people). If it’s not abundantly clear, drugs do play a major role in the story, but I should clarify that they are never glorified and their use is depicted only as debilitating and, frankly, stupid, so no worries on that score.

I give this one 4 stars out of 5. Lots of fun and definitely recommended. Prior to reading Lake Charles, I wasn’t familiar with Ed Lynskey’s work, but I’ll definitely look for more of his crime fiction. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Lynskey can do with the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachians (my neck of the woods).

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers