Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Seeking Salvation in the Shadows

With his fifth novel, John Hart proves once again that “literary thriller” is not an oxymoron

The opening lines of Redemption Road are almost all that is needed to recommend John Hart’s newest thriller: “The woman was a rare beauty in that she knew nothing of her perfection. He’d watched her long enough to suspect as much, but only in meeting her had his instinct been proven true.” Also proven true: John Hart is as near to perfect as any writer currently working. Redemption Road is conclusive evidence that Hart’s name belongs in the same breath as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, masters of language and character who demonstrated again and again that mysteries and thrillers are not limited to plot-driven potboilers. They can be a beautiful art form, too, triggering emotions as strong as any inspired by music or poetry.

Hart is the only author ever to win Edgar Awards with consecutive books (Down River and The Last Child). He has also won a SIBA Book Award and an Ian Fleming Silver Dagger Award. His five novels, all bestsellers, are set in North Carolina, from the mountains through the piedmont to the shore. The books are filled with characters who are flawed, haunted, and heroic and who populate locations to match. Redemption Road features a scarred and isolated cop, a stoic and tortured (literally and figuratively) ex-convict, a serial killer searching for a lost past, and the violent recesses of a modern Southern city. Redemption is possible for all, but only through a test of fire that may not bring them peace.

Elizabeth Black is a white cop who has admitted to killing two black rapists using apparently excessive violence. Her actions have brought her to the brink of professional and personal disaster, and her exhaustion could push her over the edge. “Elizabeth should sleep—she knew as much—but the fatigue was more than physical. The weariness came from dead men and the questions that followed, from thirteen years of cop that looked to end badly.” But even more potentially destructive is Elizabeth’s fierce compulsion to protect any wounded children who enter her life, and there are two, Gideon and Channing, who leave her vulnerable at the very moment when she must shield them from a predator unlike any she has imagined.

Elizabeth also has an unusually strong connection to Adrian Wall, ex-cop and ex-con. He is serving life for first-degree murder, suffering soul- and body-destroying abuse in prison, when he is released early for reasons that only he and the warden know. “He was not a large man, but even the guards had heard rumors of what he’d endured and how he’d done it. The numbers were undeniable: the months in hospital, the staples and stitches, the surgeries and broken bones. Even the warden paid attention to Adrian Wall, and that frightened the guards more than anything else.” Adrian’s unexpected freedom may offer a reunification with Elizabeth, but his liberty is an illusion, for he carries with him the burden of history—and not just his own.

And there is the church, both physical and spiritual, that sits at the center of this tale. Neither the stressed and damaged protagonists, nor their friends and families, can achieve the salvation they seek without enduring trials, and the judgments will not be easy nor the sentences light. All stories of trial require a venue, and Hart has placed his in an abandoned church with many secrets of its own: “[L]ight spilled through stained glass at both transepts to illuminate the altar and the woman on it. Colors were in the light—blues and greens and reds—and lines of shadow from iron in the glass.”

The shadows are deep in Redemption Road. Through the darkness comes action that builds as effectively as in the best thriller and that could, in another author’s hands, seem overdone. But Hart’s skill with character, dialogue, and setting make such extremes seem natural, not contrived. His characters are a determined and skillful lot, and such people can perform great things when the path to deliverance is open.