cover image The Devil and the River

The Devil and the River

R.J. Ellory. Overlook, $26.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4683-1129-7

This tepid thriller from Ellory (A Dark and Broken Heart) presents an original way of mutilating a corpse but follows a familiar story line. In 1974, Sheriff John Gaines of Whytesburg, Miss., who has recently regained some balance after “the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam,” is stunned when the body of a teenage girl is unearthed from the mud. The victim’s heart was removed, and a basket containing a snake swallowing its own tail was inserted in the chest cavity. The coroner identifies her as Nancy Denton, a local who vanished 20 years earlier, her features preserved by the mud in which she was buried. Gaines’s search for the murderer necessarily reopens old wounds and, predictably, yields indications that Nancy’s killer has claimed other lives. Ellory, who overlays the whodunit with heavy-handed references to the effect military service in Vietnam has had on his characters’ psyches, has been more creative and subtle in the past. Readers will hope for a return to form next time. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Mar.)