A 14-year-old boy named Gideon, gun in hand, steps into a ramshackle bar in the Carolinas, concocting to kill the man who took his mother. Two cops carry scars, seen and unseen, of violence historic and new. One, Adrian Wall, is a cop no longer; instead a wounded man grasping a beer in that run-down bar, his first taste of freedom in 13 years.
Adrian has had quite the fall from grace, not just within the pages of John Hart's exquisite new literary thriller, Redemption Road, but also during an unexpected five-year lacuna since Hart's last book. He was conceived as the centrepiece of Hart's fifth novel.
"The original manuscript was very much Adrian's story, that of a cop, wrongfully convicted, of an angry man grown hard in prison," says Hart from his farm in Virginia. "In many ways that first book was a modern interpretation of The Count Of Monte Cristo, one of my favourite books as a child, and as such needed Adrian to be focused and clear and capable of carefully constructed revenge."
Only "that first book" wasn't working. After four straight New York Times best-sellers, widespread acclaim for his chasm-deep characters, and a shelf full of awards, Hart found himself wading through a swamp, feeling lost. He'd spent a year crafting 300 pages of manuscript, scribbling away in the writing office nailed to his tractor barn, but something felt very wrong.
Character has always been the main fuel for Hart's crime writing. His tales don't start with a plot outline, he says, but a strong sense of the person whose story he wants to tell, particularly the "emotional cocktail" that drives their actions. But an angry, vengeful Adrian didn't feel authentic enough to Hart; the ex-cop was too strong and too capable given his years of suffering; a stock-standard thriller hero lacking the complexity the author coveted.
"Predictability was the problem, in a nutshell," says Hart. "Simply put, he felt like a character I'd seen a hundred times."
Drastic times called for drastic measures. He picked up the phone and confessed to his editor that he was going to miss his deadline. Then he binned the 300 pages and started again.
"I began that fifth, failed novel without understanding what my hero wanted and valued, and how far he'd go to achieve those things," recalls Hart.
"It was, in retrospect, an exercise in hubris." After four straight best-sellers since he gave up law to write his debut, The King of Lies in the carrels of the local public library, Hart admits he'd become over-confident. He'd told himself if he just kept writing, everything would eventually come together.
"That's the lesson it took a year to learn: that without the right protagonist I had no foundation for the story."
When he pressed restart, he knew he had the right protagonist, and it was no longer Adrian - even the much more nuanced, complex and contradictory version that emerged second time around. Instead, the lead in Redemption Road is Elizabeth Black, an "endlessly fascinating" bit-part player from the binned manuscript. A cop who'd known Adrian from before prison and was there on his release, she'd originally been intended as a foil against which to measure Adrian's transformation. Now she was the heart and soul of the story, a damaged detective refusing to talk about why she emptied 18 rounds into two black suspects while rescuing a kidnapping victim.
"Liz had a quality I loved right off the bat," says Hart. "The more I saw of her, the more I wanted to see. She was complex and powerful, but just raw, like an exposed nerve. So I gave her the lead, even though I'd never written a female protagonist and was nervous about the idea."
The result is spectacular. Redemption Road is an achingly beautiful literary thriller powered by evocative prose and remarkable characters, a disturbing tale of wounded people scrabbling about in a world of secrets, betrayals, and tough choices.
A Southerner by birth, Hart's novels are modern examples of the Southern gothic literary tradition: violent tales full of vivid characters wrenched by hardship, textured by the rural landscapes and complicated history of the American South.
"I think a setting should be real, yet add to a story's richness and mood," he says. "The American South is well suited to that, what with its tortured history and loss of self. It is, in fact, a vanquished nation and, though the Civil War was long ago, it's not hard to create a wonderful atmosphere for thrillers like I write; to build a sense of tension and brooding, to draw from the imagery of the abandoned and the derelict and the forgotten places. There's such a great mix here of the old and the new, of wealth and poverty, the forgiven and the unforgivable."
Redemption Road by John Hart (Thomas Dunne $35) is out now.