REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: labeling a novel as a romance or a mystery or anything is wrong and does a disservice to prospective readers. That said, Chrysler Szarlan’s “The Hawley Book of the Dead” (Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $26.00) is an impressive debut novel that combines various genres seamlessly. It’s a horror story, a police procedural, a missing persons tale and more with the whole greater than its parts.
It’s about magic, with Revelation “Reve” Dyer Maskelyne the assistant and much more of her husband, British-born Las Vegas illusionist Jeremy Maskelyne. Their show is one of the big attractions of the Las Vegas Strip — until an accident ends Jeremy’s life and turns that of Reve and their three daughters upside down.
Revelation “Reve” Dyer grew up with her grandmother’s family stories, stretching back centuries to Reve’s ancestors, who founded the town of Hawley Five Corners, Massachusetts.
Their history is steeped in secrets, for few outsiders know that an ancient magic runs in the Dyer women’s blood, and that Reve is a magician whose powers are all too real. No one more than the Dyers know that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing in a colony — later a state — infamous for burning its witches at the stake.
Reve and her husband are world-famous Las Vegas illusionists. They have three lovely young daughters, a beautiful home, and what seems like a charmed life. But Reve’s world is shattered when an intruder alters her trick pistol and she accidentally shoots and kills her beloved husband onstage.
Fearing for her daughters’ lives, Reve flees with them to the place she has always felt safest—an antiquated farmhouse in the forest of Hawley Five Corners in western Massachusetts, where the magic of her ancestors reigns, and her oldest friend — and first love — Jolon Adair is the town’s chief of police. Hawley Forest is a real place, a state preserve with horseback riding trails, hiking trails and the ghosts of an abandoned settlement in its cellar holes.
Reve and her twin daughters Grace and Faith — always called “Fai — are avid horse people. Daughter Caleigh not so much; she would rather play with her magical string.
As the novel unfolds, we learn that in the late 1980s, when Reve was a student at the private college where her father was a professor, she befriended a fellow student, Maggie Hamilton. Maggie, from an inner city African-American background, is unhappy at the college and transfers to the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. There she learns about a secret and sinister government experiment underway in the tunnels of the university. She also comes to the attention of FBI agent Rigel Voss, who began to search for Maggie — and Reve — after they learned of the secret program.
On her anscestral turf, Reve is drawn deeper into her family’s legends. What she discovers is The Hawley Book of the Dead, an ancient leather-bound journal holding mysterious mythic power. As she pieces together the truth behind the book, Reve will have to shield herself and her daughters against an uncertain, increasingly dangerous fate. For soon it becomes clear that the stranger (could it be the now disgraced Rigel Voss?) who upended Reve’s life in Las Vegas has followed her to Hawley—and that she has something he desperately wants.
About Chrysler Szarlan (from her website)
“I worked with racehorses and as a magician’s assistant before graduating from law school, then became a managing attorney with the Connecticut Legal Rights Project. Now I live in western Massachusetts with my family. I work part-time as a bookseller at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and full-time as a writer, at home in my pajamas. I ride my horse in the Hawley Forest whenever possible. And I do believe in magic.” Her website: http://www.chryslerszarlan.com/