Look, I’m not proud of what I’m about to admit, but the truth is, I went in prepared to hate this book. I don’t even know why because when I read the summary, I was intrigued, but the day I sat down to read Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers, I felt like it was the last book I wanted to read at the moment. The first pages of notes I took on this book suggest this attitude influenced the way I read the book– nothing but scribbles filled with vitriol for one of the characters, Ethan Holt, American Olympian turned professor teaching the Classics. I thought he was pretentious, especially after his back-handed comment about Harry Potter. What can I say? I’m sensitive about that. And Skip, Ethan’s daughter? He says she is mature for a thirteen year old, but I didn’t see it at all. But then…a switch flipped in chapter two when a new character was introduced. This new person, watching Ethan and his friends and family, while cloaked in the night, created an atmosphere that I can only describe as ominous and macabre. In that moment, I was hooked.
Released: December 2015
Publisher: Tyrus Books
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Synopsis: In his twenties, Ethan Holt won the decathlon at the Olympics and was jokingly nicknamed “Hercules”; now, in his late thirties, he’s returned to his ivy-covered alma mater to teach, and to raise his young daughter Skip as a single father. After a hushed-up scandal over his Olympics win and the death of his wife in a car accident five years ago, Ethan wants nothing more than to forget his past. Skip is not only the light of Ethan’s life–she is his life. Then, Skip is kidnapped. A series of bizarre ransom demands start coming in that stretch Ethan’s athletic prowess to its limits, and he realizes with growing horror that they are modern versions of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, demanded in tricky, rhyming clues by someone who seems to have followed every step of Ethan’s career.
My initial perception of Skip and her father, Ethan, immediately dissolved after chapter two. I appreciated the dynamic between father and daughter as they navigated the rocky waters of preteen-hood together, but it was the scenes when they were alone, trapped inside their own heads, that impressed me the most– especially Skip, who relives the day her mother dies through vivid memory senses. Albeit sad, the prose was beautiful, and it was like I was reliving the day alongside Skip.
Even the secondary characters in Dig Two Graves were written with as much care as the main characters. I was most intrigued by TJ Markson, Ethan’s teaching assistant. He is described as a reserved, greasy-haired, nerdy young man, but there is a scene in chapter four, when Ethan and TJ are making remarks on the Ninth Circle of Hell, a place reserved for traitors, that makes the reader second guess their perception of Markson:
When TJ looked back from the class to me—eager eyes through thick glasses—he gave me the strangest smile. At least I thought it was a smile. His incisors were prominent, second, he looked like a wolf. Snarling. (p. 31)
I also loved Detective Mizell, even though on some occasions, she seemed to be a caricature of a black cop. She’s strong, she’s bold, she’s smarter than she realizes, and unfortunately she relates to Ethan; she becomes especially vulnerable when the antagonist taunts her with photos of a missing child case that went cold years ago– the case of her own kidnapped niece.
And the antagonist! I cannot forget about him even if I tried. I think what I found most interesting about this character is, despite his painful past, he didn’t evoke any sympathy– he’s just that cruel. He is obsessed with Ethan, and he will stop at nothing to ensure that Ethan suffers for a crime he does not realize he has committed. On top of that, he’s just clever and demented enough to stay one step ahead of Ethan and the detectives working the case.
Cinematic. Now that is certainly a strange adjective for a book. But that’s what it is. It’s like a movie was playing inside my head the entire time. The characters, as I already mentioned, were vivid. His prose created a cold, wintery, and sometimes bleak atmosphere of Canaan campus, Mt. Gresh, and the area surrounding the small New England town:
Just twenty-five minutes away from the Canaan campus, it was a different world, I thought, desperate and derelict. Forty thousand bucks a year to go to Canaan, with its Gothic stone buildings and perfect lawns, and this is what you saw, on your way out of town: a racetrack, for greyhounds. Strip bars, already full by mid-afternoon. Gun shops. Rows of “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs, scrawled across windows in whitewash paint. Houses that were almost leaning, that had seen their last good coats of paint years ago. (p. 172-173)
Most impressive though was Powers’s ability to assemble the scenes so cohesively. The story follows three individuals, Ethan, Skip, and the kidnapper, which is challenging enough; then, he throws in the occasional flashback so effortlessly. There are also chapters that weave scenes of Ethan and then Skip and her kidnapper side by side; the tension builds with each scene change until the very end of the chapter, and then a revelation or a secret is revealed, and then my mind is blown spraying confetti everywhere, kind of like this:
It certainly helps if you’re familiar with Hercules and his twelve labors, which the antagonist uses as inspiration for the disturbing “scavenger hunt”, though it’s still fascinating even if you’re not familiar with the story of Hercules. In addition, Powers created one heck of a red herring in Dig Two Graves. My notebook is filled with scribbles debating whether or not a certain character could be the kidnapper. He certainly had the motive (and potentially the means), but I wasn’t fully convinced this particular character could be so vicious.
It seems silly that this might influence someone’s decision to read a book, but it does. Did you know there is a website called Does the Dog Die? that lets viewers know whether an animal is harmed or dies during the course of a movie? Sometimes I wish there was a similar resource for books, but I digress… In Dig Two Graves, some animals suffered and were killed at the hand of the antagonist, and I had an especially difficult time reading these scenes.
My experience with crime thrillers is limited, although of the handful that I have read, Dig Two Graves by Kim Powers is easily my favorite. It made me feel anxious, but in a good way. It filled me with anticipation, and I felt like I couldn’t read the novel fast enough. And finally, it left me feeling surprised. I totally didn’t see that ending coming, although looking back on the rest of the novel, I wonder how did I miss it? It makes me eager to explore this genre more now that I’ve experienced just what a well-written crime thriller can do to a reader. Would I recommend this one? Absolutely!
Kim Powers is the author of the novel Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story as well as the critically acclaimed memoir The History of Swimming, a Barnes & Noble “Discover” Book and Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Memoir of the Year. He also wrote the screenplay for the festival-favorite indie film “Finding North.” In 2007, he was selected as one of the “Out 100” —Out Magazine‘s top 100 most influential members of the LGBTQ community in the country.
Powers is currently the Editorial Producer/Senior Writer for ABC’s 20/20, and has written for numbers ABC shows including What Would You Do? with John Quinones, and primetime specials with Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Robin Roberts and Katie Couric. He won both Emmy and Peabody Awards for his 9/11 reporting for Good Morning America, and for the past two years has received the Edward R. Murrow Award with ABC News for Overall Excellence.
A native Texan, he graduated from Austin College, where we was just named a Distinguished Alumni, and also received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, where he was managing editor of Theater Magazine. He lives in New York City and Asbury Park, NJ.