A fishing town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast probably isn’t the first setting that springs to mind when you think of a site for a confrontation between immortals serving the forces of Good and Evil. Robert E. Hirsch has used this unlikely setting to good effect in his moody, psychological horror tale.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
An elderly Catholic brother finds a young girl ritualistically murdered under a crucifix in his attic. Things get weirder from there. Shortly thereafter, a young man named Tristan St. Germain – surely a reference to the infamous historical figure of the Comte de St. Germain – arrives in town, naked and with no memories. Soon more people in town are brutally murdered. The lead detective assigned to the investigation is Peter Toche, a local man haunted by another case involving a murdered child and with his own secrets. Toche is assisted by the enigmatic Tristan and Father Joseph, the local parish priest, a good but flawed man. I don’t want to reveal too much about the killer – his identity is known to the reader almost from the outset, but it’s his motives that remain mysterious. Suffice it to say that his past and murderous intentions are deeply intertwined with Tristan’s history.
The small, Mississippi Gulf Coast fishing village of Gulf Springs is well painted, its inhabitants genuinely interesting and lending a great deal of verisimilitude to the setting. Many of the secondary characters seem almost as richly portrayed as the major ones, further helping the setting to really come alive. Characterization is one of Hirsch’s strengths here.
This isn’t the easiest novel to pigeon-hole into a genre. On the face of it, it’s a hunt for a serial killer who is terrorizing a small town, but the supernatural and religious overtones and themes that drive the plot ensure that CONTRITION is no ordinary serial killer novel. The supernatural is overt here; it’s subtle at times, but there’s no denying the importance (and prevalence) of a number of supernatural elements. CONTRITION is also filled with Catholic imagery, but it’s evocative rather than oppressive and not, I think, an impediment for non-Catholic readers. This is certainly not an orthodox catholic kind of cosmology, but it works well here. The themes of contrition, confession, and atonement – key Catholic concepts – underlay the plot and drive the actions of the protagonists throughout the novel. There is plenty of action and violence in CONTRITION – some of it absolutely brutal – but this is no gorefest.
As much as I enjoyed the novel, I must admit that CONTRITION is, at times, a little slow moving. It’s a slow build toward resolution, and at times it’s a little fuzzy exactly what’s going on. Ultimately it’s neither non-stop action nor slow philosophical musing; it’s both, at various points in the story, though it’s not without its flaws. Pacing is sometimes off, and let’s face it, the novel’s themes and supernatural elements can be heavy-handed at times. CONTRITION is by no means a bad book, and I recommended it for those who enjoy psychological thrillers infused with both religious and supernatural elements.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers