LitStack Review: Ithaca Falls by Steve Thayer
Release Date: April 15, 2015
I have a couple of confessions to make. I picked up Steve Thayer’s new novel, Ithaca Falls, for two non-literary reasons. The first is that the author lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, just over the river from me. The second is that most of the action takes place at Cornell University, situated near the town of Ithaca, New York. You see, I graduated from Cornell College (in idyllic Mount Vernon, Iowa), and often folks would merely hear “Cornell” and erroneously assume I attended the Ivy League school. In fact, one of the most popular t-shirts on campus during my time at my Cornell simply had the words “Isn’t that in Ithaca?” emblazoned across the front.
So I couldn’t resist picking up this time-traveling mystery, written by a neighbor, and taking place that already was somewhat mythical in my own life – and I’m so very glad I did.
Ithaca Falls is about time travel, yes, and it’s a wonderful mystery/thriller, but it’s also a compelling and sometimes poignant tale about a man who struggles with great loss, both in his present and, bizarrely, in his future.
John Alden was born in 1986 and raised in Ithaca, New York. After a stint in the Army, he became a New York City cop and worked his way up to homicide detective while taking night classes and obtaining a Masters degree in forensic psychology. He wrote an exhaustive book on criminology and investigative techniques that became a working textbook for homicide detectives, and ended up leaving the force to return to Ithaca, get married, and teach criminal justice courses at Cornell University.
But in 2010, murder comes to Ithaca, and changes John Alden’s life forever. The ex-cop goes in pursuit of a serial killer, following him to the Cornell campus during a wild storm on Halloween night. Catching up with his suspect on the fabled Rickety Bridge spanning the Fall Creek gorge, the two grapple and then fall into the raging waters, to be swept over Ithaca Falls.
The next morning, after the storm, Cornell’s President Emeritus, the honorable H. W. Hightower, PhD, is out for his routine walk, and comes across a body washed up on the shore of the still turgid creek. He takes the man back to his mansion, and cares for him while he convalesces. The man is John Alden. The year in 1929.
That’s all I can tell you. Not because I’ll spoil anything, necessarily, but because the other factors – the other characters (the priest, the scientist, the spoiled Senator’s son, the brown-eyed girl, the ghost runner, the black coach/groundskeeper, the one-armed New York cop…), the other circumstances, the outcomes (and there are many) – are so wonderfully wrought that a reader will want to let them unfold as written. Suffice it to say, this book is spun around many other elements that lead the reader down paths that keep you… not so much guessing, as wondering.
The writing is suasive, impressively so. Much of the action takes place at Cornell in 1929, and author Thayer effortless takes the reader into this environment, re-enacting the time – just prior to the onset of the Great Depression, when the moral conservatives were in full howl, and FDR was still just the governor of New York – with a deft touch. His treatment of John Alden as a man thrown back in time is handled masterfully, not merely through the character’s conviction and sense of purpose, but also by wistful touchstones that keep him, and the reader, grounded in what he perceives as reality, as remarkable as it seems to be. Sometimes we see the action through the eyes of the players, and sometimes we see it from a distance, as if it were a story told by the history books, but we never feel jarred or out of step with the forward moving narrative.
Ithaca Falls is not a happy book; after all, it deals with murder, serial killers, the barbarity of the times, personal loss, and the inevitable forces that we cannot control, but it is a story that never loses sight of redemption, or at least the attempt at redemption. Whether it achieves that is a question we are allowed to determine on our own.
~ Sharon Browning