The Burn Palace

By Stephen Dobyns

Blue Rider Press. 480 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey


The Burn Palace is an unsettling mix of sharply observed small-town New England life and a supernatural abduction-and-murder spree.

The story begins at Morgan Memorial, a 50-bed hospital in Brewster, R.I. After the frisky Alice Alessio, known more commonly as Nurse Spandex, concludes her tryst with Dr. Balfour, she hurries back to the nursery and, instead of finding the little Summers boy in his crib she finds a harmless but scary corn snake. It turns out that the baby is the result of an experience his teenage mother, Peggy, compares to Rosemary's Baby.

It's more than the usual excitement for Brewster: "Two-thirds of the people in Brewster were born here, went to school here, work here, and will most likely die here . . . . They're not entirely sick to death of one another, but they know one another's secrets, or imagine they do, and turn gossip into a fine art."

The people of Brewster soon have more than enough to talk about. Ernest Hartmann, an insurance investigator from Boston, is following up on an arsonist who told him "about some folks in Brewster - kidnappers or cultists or neopagans." Tracking down an insurance angle on a remote road in the nearby Great Swamp, Hartmann meets a gruesome end, complete with a scalping.

Some of Brewster's residents are terrifying enough on their own terms. Carl Krause, the stepfather of the boy whose corn snake was stolen and plopped in the hospital crib, is fine when he takes his medication but is subject to paranoia and murderous rages when he doesn't: Carl "felt aggrieved because some people existed." And that includes his wife and his stepchildren, whom he insists must call him Mr. Krause.

Woody Potter, a state police detective assigned to the county and an investigator in the case, has his own challenges controlling his anger. When his therapist asks, "Where d'you see yourself in ten years?", he starts to answer, "In jail," but thinks better of it. Unlike Carl Krause, Woody isn't suffering from severe mental illness and can, after all, think better of it. And he has the decency, amid the media circus over the corn snake in the hospital crib, to wonder why no one seems to care about the missing baby.

Soon, other girls besides Peggy are found to have been drugged and raped, with the trappings of Satanism. On the other end of the demographic spectrum, otherwise healthy-looking senior residents of Ocean Breezes are dying. And the coyotes outside of town just don't act the way coyotes are supposed to.

The fear and crimes snowball, to the point that some frightened Brewster residents are targeting harmless Wiccans in the community (and once, by accident, a Methodist who favors long skirts and peasant jewelry). It's as if the real perpetrators of the mayhem understand that all you have to is feed the fear in order to unleash the mob. Or, as the novel notes, "Surely fear is the oldest emotion. . . . The emotion urging you to run is older than the one telling you to embrace."

Stephen Dobyns is also a poet, a professor, and the author of a fine series of mysteries set in Saratoga, N.Y., featuring private eye Charlie Bradshaw. Dobyns told the New Yorker magazine a year ago: "Many of my poems try to use a comic element to reach a place that isn't comic at all. The comic element works as a surprise."

Dobyns taps into something similar in The Burn Palace (the title refers to the local crematorium, which seems to attract unhinged personnel). The novel is an interplay of black-comedy touches, nuanced small-town portraits, and stomach-churning violence. The combination doesn't necessarily work smoothly. At a certain point, you don't want to get too attached to the characters because ghastly things happen to so many of them.

Woody unravels the various intertwined mysteries, aided by such winning characters as Detective Beth Lajoie, a savvy cop who assists in cracking the case with the help of a screamingly awful emerald pantsuit.

The Burn Palace passes the acid test of any piece of fiction: Do you care what happens to the characters? Do you want to keep reading? Just remember that if you're squeamish, you might want to read over some of the passages quickly.

Rhonda Dickey is a former Inquirer editor.