Small-town newspaper writing can be fun, if only for its front-row seat on local life — the chance to ride shotgun in a cop car, or to interview and photograph local workers as they set up a Fourth of July parade or a Christmas wonderland. In her latest novel, A Cold and Lonely Place, Sara J. Henry places us right alongside Troy Chance as the reporter starts a story on a huge ice palace about to be built on Saranac Lake. The story soon turns into a mystery. And, like the best newspaper writers, Henry brings the North Country to vivid life via narrator and protagonist Troy.
The tiny Adirondack town of Saranac Lake is a backdrop for the novel, if not a character itself. Troy aptly describes the mountain scenery, the drafty old houses, the down-at-the-heels bars and restaurants where so much of this story takes place. And it’s easy to get caught up in this reporter’s quest for information about a body encased in ice, discovered beneath the surface of the frozen lake.
Henry is a former Adirondacks-based newspaper reporter herself, now a novelist living in southern Vermont. A Cold and Lonely Place is her second book. Her first, Learning to Swim, won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2012. Also a Troy Chance story, it starts when the reporter spots a young boy being tossed from a Lake Champlain ferry and dives in to rescue him. Then she has to figure out what to do with him.
Though it’s not really billed as a sequel, A Cold and Lonely Place finds Troy some time after the story of Learning to Swim, living in a big house with never enough money or time to enjoy her surroundings. She skis once in a while and takes the occasional walk with her dog, but these things take place around the edges of her work life. Even so, Troy feels profoundly ill-equipped to investigate the biggest story of her career. The dead man turns out to be her roommate’s missing boyfriend, Tobin. When Troy’s editor assigns her to write about the death, the reporter resolves to find out whether Tobin died accidentally or was murdered.
Henry’s descriptions of Troy’s inner life and icy surroundings are so exacting that we feel cold and hungry whenever she does. But often the details are mundane and don’t contribute much to the story. One example is an aside about Troy’s car, at the opening of a chapter in which she goes to interview Tobin’s friends about his death:
It was starting to snow, so we took my car. When I first moved here I didn’t have four-wheel drive, but before the end of that first winter I sold my old Datsun and used a chunk of savings to buy a used Subaru. Every snowfall since, I’d been glad I did.
Unfortunately, Henry’s attention to detail doesn’t extend sufficiently to most of the other characters. The author introduces so many people — including those whom Troy emails and visits on day trips, all only tangentially explained — that it’s impossible to keep them straight, let alone get a sense of their place in the story. It’s not entirely unheard of in the genre for a late-breaking character to help resolve the mystery. Still, navigating the sheer number of individuals in this one can be frustrating.
Because A Cold and Lonely Place is essentially the second in a series about Troy, characters and storylines from Learning to Swim recur without explanation. Henry frequently alludes to that first story, but doesn’t provide the quick encapsulation that would help new readers understand it.
Like many good mysteries, A Cold and Lonely Place combines straightforward writing with minute description. Those qualities are important in newspaper articles, too. Over the course of the novel, Troy writes a series of stories investigating Tobin’s childhood and family life, and ultimately one that pieces together the circumstances of the night he died. But we don’t get to read these stories; rather, individuals in the novel later tell Troy how good they were. With this lapse, Henry ignores an opportunity to provide more insight into her protagonist: showing us Troy’s own writing style, the way her mind works.
Lacking a real understanding of the book’s characters, we’re left to hang on physical details. Troy describes every inch of the interior of Tobin’s cabin at least twice. And, if A Cold and Lonely Place were a play, the common piece of kitchen equipment leading to Troy’s “aha!” moment would be fixed with a huge, bright spotlight.
Troy Chance is a likable character, and we want her to succeed; we root for her to get to the bottom of the mystery and resume her normal, saner life. But, even as she has her epiphany, the rest of us remain a little confused about which character is which and who did what when.
"A Cold and Lonely Place" by Sara J. Henry. Crown Publishers, 304 pages. $24.
We could feel the reverberation of the ice-cutting machine through the frozen lake beneath our feet. Matt Boudoin was telling me this would be the best ice palace ever, and I was nodding, because of course every year the palace seems better than the one the year before. At the same moment he stopped talking and I stopped nodding, because the machine had halted and the crew of men was staring down at the ice. Then, in unison, like marionettes with their strings being pulled, they turned their heads to look at Matt. Their faces were blank, but we knew something was wrong, very wrong.
For the first few months of winter, this lake is an expanse of frozen nothingness. Then, seemingly overnight, an enormous palace of ice appears, blocks melded together with a mortar of frozen slush, infused by colored lights that turn it into a fairy-tale castle. You can wander through it, footsteps crunching, breath forming icy clouds, and feel a sense of wonder you haven’t felt since you were a child.
It’s part of the fabric of this town, and the flow of winter is based around it. Never mind the huge expenditure of time and energy. This is Saranac Lake; this is Winter Carnival. Up goes the ice palace, every year with a different design, a different form of magic. This year I was going to track its progress for the local paper, with a photo and vignette every day — I thought I’d write about the homemade ice-cutting contraption, interview one of the ice cutters, talk to the designer. There was a lot you could write about palaces built of ice cut from the lake.
As we reached the circle of men, they stepped back, and Matt and I looked down. What I saw looked at first like a shadow under the ice — a dark mass, debris somehow caught up in cast-off clothing and trapped underneath as the ice had formed. I was wondering why the crew didn’t simply move on to clean ice when I realized the mass had a shape, a human shape. You could see something that looked like eyes and a mouth that seemed open. Right about then Matt grabbed my arm and walked me away from the thing under the ice. We stopped about 10 feet away and I sank to my heels, trying to process what I thought I’d seen. Matt whipped out a walkie-talkie and began barking orders as he gestured the men further back.
For once my journalistic instincts had shut down, and I had no urge to record any of this. I could still envision that face under the ice, as if it were looking at me through a rain-distorted window.
And it was a face I knew.
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