At the beginning of Christopher J. Yates's fine second novel, "Grist Mill Road," Patrick "Patch" McConnell looks back on the summer of 1982 and what he took for an "ideal childhood . . . growing up in the best place on earth, probably still [believing] in ghosts, UFOs, tarot cards and the purity of major league baseball." His "best place" is a town in the mountains 90 miles north of New York City. There, day after day, you would have found the 12-year-old Patch and his intimidating 14-year-old friend Matthew running wild without adult supervision.
Then came an event that changed three lives. It can be encapsulated in a tabloid headline — BOY SHOOTS OUT GIRL'S EYE — but there was much more to it than that.
For one thing, the shooting was no accident. The perpetrator, Matthew, first tied 13-year-old Hannah to a tree, then picked up a BB gun and pumped pellet after pellet into her, 37 of them in all. Patch was there, too, having his Lord Jim moment — standing by, watching the attack in horror, but making no attempt to stop it, not even a verbal protest. With blood all over herself and one eye a pulpy mess, Hannah was left for dead. Later Patch sneaked back, found her still alive, untied her and sought help. In the aftermath, Matthew confessed to the crime, and the three young people went their separate ways. Ever since, Patch has been looking for a chance to redeem himself.
Lord Jim fled to the jungles of Southeast Asia, but Patch settled for Manhattan, where 26 years after the fact, the shooting takes on new meaning. By now Patch and Hannah are husband and wife — they met by chance in Grand Central Terminal some years back and eventually fell in love. (In case you're wondering, she has a prosthetic eye that looks more real than the old glass ones.) Matthew reenters their lives first via the Internet, then in person; as before, he, Patch and Hannah make a volatile mix.
Yates now turns to questions that hark back to the summer of '82. For example, why wasn't Patch charged as an accomplice? And how could Hannah possibly marry someone who let her down so badly, second thoughts or not? The answer, in each case, is that her perception of the attack is quite different from Patch's. He lives in fear of the day when she stumbles upon "the monstrous secret that paces the perimeter of our marriage, like something that prowls in the shadows, a dangerous creature awaiting its moments, the right time to strike." Eventually, Patch will set out to disarm that "monstrous secret" — with disastrous results." Another question — not fully answered until the book's final pages — is how Matthew could have done something so heinous.
Shuffling and reshuffling one's narrators has become almost a sport among suspense novelists, some of whom take it to excess. This reader, for one, balked when Paula Hawkins in effect brought one of her characters in "The Girl on the Train" back from the dead, out of temporal sequence, to supply crucial information. Yates eschews such highhanded artifice, tacking back and forth in time, and from one narrator to another, with extraordinary skill. Some manipulators, you might say, are less manipulative than others.
Yates, who was born and raised in England and now lives in New York City, set his first novel, "Black Chalk," mostly in his homeland. This time around, he demonstrates impressive knowledge of and affection for his adopted country while telling an even more compelling tale. Not least among his new book's strengths is the light it sheds on the phenomenon of an otherwise law-abiding male giving in to volcanic rage.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Christopher J. Yates
Picador. 352 pp. $26