Jack Branch is one of the privileged members of Lakeland, Mississippi, society in 1954. His family is wealthy and respected, even though his father has attempted suicide and is now a recluse. Jack teaches in the local high school, looking for someone he can spur into greatness or at least help out a little. He settles on Eddie Miller, son of Luther Ray Miller, known as "the Coed Killer."
Eddie is a student in Jack's special class on evil through the centuries. This seems to me a pretty contrived situation; I can't imagine such a class actually being taught in 1954. In Mississippi. But let that go. Eddie's in the class, and he's going to write a paper on his father. Jack sees this as a way for the boy to exorcize his demons. Let's just say that things don't work out as planned.
In this novel as in some of Thomas Cook's earlier books (Breakheart Hill, for example), the narrator is a man grown old who's telling us of events long past. He lets us know right away that terrible things have happened, and in case you didn't get it the first time, he reminds you again. Often. It's a form of the "had I but known" approach, and some readers might find it irritating.
Here's the opening: "I was badly shaped by my good fortune and so failed to see the darkness and the things that darkness hides. Until the stark moment came, evil remained distant to me, mere lecture notes . . . ." So we know right away that Bad Things are going to happen. Then we get "the whole room [was] suffused with light, as dark beginnings almost always are." And "the morning light came straight from heaven and seemed -- like me -- as yet untouched by darkness." And so on. By the ending, everybody's touched by darkness, as is the case in most of Cook's novels. He's a noir kind of guy, though maybe not in the usual sense.
Cook writes beautifully, and when the narration is broken with excerpts from Eddie's paper and from a trial (we don't know exactly whose on trial or for what), the changes work very well. What you'll think of the book might depend on how much you like the writing and how well you can put up with a narrator's withholding so much information, stuff he knows very well, for 350 or so pages before finally getting to the darkness that he's promised. Cook also likes to have a little "snapper" in some of his books. I didn't think the one this time worked very well, but that could just be me. I noticed this novel on several "best of 2008" lists, so it's very well thought of. I'm ambivalent. I wanted to like it more than I did.