In Devil’s Briar by Amy Cross the reader meets Bill and Paula, a husband and wife team, as they are driving around in a deserted area looking for Devil’s Briar, a settlement that does not appear on current maps. It appeared on early ones as some sort camp but all traces of it are gone on modern maps. There is the possibility that it is an undiscovered ghost town. If Bill can find the remains of the town, his reputation with his professor colleagues will be rejuvenated; there will be funding for a project with his name on it. Paula is doubtful of the town’s existence but feels it is her duty as a wife to support him in what may be a comeback from a career that has been going nowhere. She feels that their marriage mirrors his career and she would just as soon part ways with Bill and pursue her own interests. This is their last chance.
They will find the town. The buildings will be deserted. The atmosphere is ghostly. There will be unexplained noises; there is even a skeleton discovered under the bed in the room of a deserted hotel where they, actually Bill, decided to stay for a night or so. Paula didn’t want to stay but there was a problem with a punctured gas tank so until they could find some gas somewhere among the ruins, they were stuck. They might have to begin walking out of the town but it would require a full day to do so; they might as well rest the night. Of course, there was no cell phone coverage and no way to communicate out of this “dead zone” to call for help.
The two scientists want to find out as much as possible about the town. What was its purpose? Who lived there and where did they all go? Bill and Paula will eventually and steadily find clues. Bill is the persistent investigator, willing to spend all the time it takes. Paula is the doubting, resistant supporter until she discovers the gas can that Bill has hidden. It was Bill who punctured the gas tank. Paula is angry and despite the occurrence of events that she should have been interested in, she is too angry with Bill. She will leave even if she has to walk out. And she does. For an indeterminate number of months, she pursues her own interests in California and doesn’t worry about Bill. If something happened to him, she would be informed. Finally, she is informed by Bill’s colleagues that they can’t find Bill. They tried to track him to Devil’s Briar but they can’t find the town or Bill. The professors ask for her help; she reluctantly agrees but initially, she also can’t find the ghost town.
While Bill, Paula, university colleagues, and even Bill are clueless, the reader is not. Cross alternates chapters in the story of the efforts of Bill and Paula today and the history of Devil’s Briar circa 1925. It is in the telling of the past that we see vintage Amy Cross storytelling. There is murder, avarice, greed, religious charlatans, an element of magic, an appeal to actual historical events (Tesla) and the graphic violence which is a hallmark of the approximately fifteen Amy Cross novels I have read. Shock and horror set in unusual environments are what I expect. I have yet to be disappointed. I found this novel to be a few cuts above other Cross novels in character development. This is the best Cross novel I have read so far but there are a lot I have yet to read.
Bill and Paula are the main drivers of the story but their characters are not particularly interesting. Both man and wife are in an unsatisfying relationship and that is about it. The reason why is hinted at but not fully explained. This reader doesn’t really care about them. It is the other characters, the 1925 folks, the original settlers of Devil’s Briar who have great well-developed characters.
Mayor Albert Caster is a character with so many flaws, such an egocentric type, that I could easily feel superior to him. He cared about no one and demanded respect from everyone because of his position of mayor in a settlement that numbered less than fifty. He was unscrupulous in his use of a hired assassin that he used to solve immediate problems. He would later claim credit for solving the town’s crime problem as he killed his own hired assassin. Just when I was comfortable with my disgust for the mayor, he did great things and showed concern for those down and out. He would eventually make some serious sacrifices which seemed completely out of character for the mayor I first met.
Thomas Paternoster arrives in town unexpectedly with plans to develop the town. This means he must deal with the mayor, something which pleases the mayor a lot. Paternoster promises fast and dramatic changes that will aid the town. But even the mayor is surprised by the sudden (within 24 hours) appearance in the center of the town of a forty foot tall iron cross. This cross will spur questions years later when it is discovered by Paula and Bill.
Thomas Paternoster does not appear alone in Devil’s Briar; he is accompanied by his niece, Victoria. She is beautiful, stunning, nubile, and all things which inspire lustful thoughts in Mayor Caster. The Mayor is a model of unattractiveness which is not lessened by his advanced age. There is no reason these two should ever be together but they will be; they even get married. Victoria’s background is only hinted at. Is she really a niece to Thomas Paternoster or is she a lover? Or is he a pimp to his former employee? Readers never really know this.
Mayor Caster is quite complex. He is the egocentric mayor, the mayor who wants to help out the disadvantaged waif Victoria, the person who killed Lawrence Evans (town bad boy and hired assassin of the mayor) and a person who wants to promote his town. Lawrence refuses to stay dead as he lives on inside the mayor’s mind, providing the mayor with suggestions for the proper use of Victoria. That is where the sexual elements of the story might put a few readers off. Cross novels tend to focus more on the horrific and gruesome dismemberment of characters over strange sexual acrobatics. Most (not all) Cross novels should probably come with a warning. This is one that should have a warning related to violence, not sex.
Still, Amy Cross is one of my favorite authors as far as entertainment. I don’t even get too annoyed at the typos that plague all the novels I have read by this author. And I am easily annoyed. This novel is great if you are a fan of this genre. If you are not, read no further than the warnings.