The Black River Players

Graham Sedam, blog, thoughts, life, interests, writing, The Black River Players, book review, J. Thomas Richards, noir, detective novel, meth plague, Black River Iowa
I'll admit that when I first started reading J. Thomas Richard's noir-style novel, The Black River Players, my brain was a little resistant. That notion sounds worse than it was, but that seems to be the best way for me to describe it. With a little more explanation, maybe you'll understand. It's a great book, so don't stop reading here, and please, buy a copy and support a talented writer who is self-published.

What you must first understand is that I was coming out of reading an entirely different book in every sense of the word “entirely.” The book I had finished reading, Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, is a text based upon gathered information that is then laid out and explained in a comprehensive way. I enjoyed that book for the knowledge that I gained, and I wrote a post about my experience with it. That book contributed to an even greater understanding I now have of the human race’s historical background. The text in Justinian's Flea and the way in which it was delivered is VERY different than in The Black River Players. My brain had to adjust.

Luckily, my adjustment period only took about a chapter or so before I was immersed within the tale weaved by Mr. Richards. Also, when I started reading this book, I was starting to use my treadmill more and thought it was a good idea to read and walk at the same time. Maybe that contributed to the difficulty in transitioning. It wasn't a bad idea, as I do pace at times when I read, but ultimately, I decided combining these two activities, walking on a treadmill and reading from books, wasn't for me. From there, I proceeded to read The Black River Players in the morning before I went to work.

So, what do I have to say about the book beyond liking it?

Graham Sedam, blog, thoughts, life, interests, writing, The Black River Players, book review, J. Thomas Richards, noir, detective novel, meth plague, Black River Iowa
It felt very modern and very real. The whole story felt like it could have been an account from a town next door, albeit dramatized for the sake of a good story, considering the meth plague is a current issue throughout the country—Small Town, USA is no exception. The characters were well thought out, diverse in many ways, and complete in their individual personalities. The character development alone should compel you to read this book. Is the story driven by the characters or vice versa? It can be hard to tell which drove which, and I think that speaks volumes about Richards’ creativity and natural ability to tell a compelling story.

While some characters are harder than others to give the benefit of doubt to or feel sympathy for, I thoroughly enjoyed how J (or James as I know him) made nearly all of the inhabitants of his book all the more real by making their lives, their decisions more complex than another author might have. It’s easy to overlook how someone came to who they are now or to what drives them daily. We like to label someone who does “Activity X” as bad and someone who has “Job Y” as good. If only life were that simple. We are a mix of good and bad. What are the motives behind what we do? What lines are we tip-toeing upon? To tell this story is to tell a story of angst, of want, but also one of hope. Within The Black River Players, there always seemed to be enough backstory, enough details present to get a good feel of the characters and to understand their choices.

I found the book to flow really well. The words were easy to digest as they came, and I found myself moving through the book faster than I had previously imagined I would. I actually finished reading it in June of this year (2018) despite publishing a post about it in October. My schedule and how I fit reading books into that schedule is the only reason why it took me until June to read. However, don’t get me wrong. It’s not elementary at all. Its language and subject matter alone are for the more mature. What I’m saying is that, regardless of whether you are an avid reader or a casual one, it’s a book that will leave you intellectually satisfied, yet not overwhelmed.

The voice of the book has a noir-type feel but also has a gritty, seedy vibe to it, which lends well to the details of the story laid out. I fully accept that I may be reading into the voice of the book a bit. Sometimes when I read a book, the voice in my head is me reading the words plainly but with some inflection. Sometimes, it is more theatrical. When I read to my kids, I essentially make unique voices for each character and give them personality, even the narrator has some flair at times. When I read The Black River Players, I did so in a gritty, noir-style speak. I have the pleasure of knowing the author, so it was the sound of his voice that I used as a starting point to then layer the grit and the noir.

Graham Sedam, blog, thoughts, life, interests, writing, The Black River Players, book review, J. Thomas Richards, noir, detective novel, meth plague, Black River Iowa
I like the way that the book is laid out. There are three main parts to the book and chapters within those. Within each chapter, the scenes are broken up with clear, visual breaks in text. I liked how that affected my relationship with the story. Maybe it's all in my head, but I felt like it helped to move the story along at a more excited-but-not-frantic pace. I think I can best relate this technique of storytelling with methods used in film (television/movies).

In film, the director makes decisions that ultimately decide how an audience digests and, therefore, perceives a story. Decisions on how the scenes are spliced together along with their respective lengths and other stimuli like music choice can have a great impact upon how the end product feels or the mood it produces within a person. Everyone is different and results won’t always be the exact same. Such is art. Of course, books are not that different from film in that they have similar elements. They both tell a story. However, film and books are quite different in HOW they are able to tell a story.

With The Black River Players, I felt that James introduced some of the same feel and puppeteering as can be achieved with film. I liked that. To me, it felt more easily adaptable to film, as if he wrote out what he was watching in his mind’s eye, splicing scenes in a particular order to give the overall effect that he wanted, to tell the story in the most riveting way that he could.

I love how the story feels both complete and buttoned up while also leaving plenty of open-ended questions. It could be an opening for a sequel, and I would understand the desire to reopen the lives of these players. However, I think many great stories and their authors know that some things are best left unknown or wondered about. It is this wandering of the imagination that keeps a good story alive long after the last scene or page is completed; It's definitely one of the reasons why LOST continues to be my all-time favorite TV show. If Mr. Richards decided to write a sequel, I wouldn't complain. In fact, I’d be very interested to see how he went about it. What new players would come to the table? What events would the old players be caught up in to warrant their return?

I’m not one who rereads books. I’m always ready to move on to the next one. There are so many I haven't read, and let’s be honest, I don’t get through them terribly quickly. So keep this in mind: I can see myself reading The Black River Players again.

You can find J. Thomas Richards on Twitter @loosemeatnoose.

Whether it's a paperback or the Kindle version, you can purchase the book at Amazon. Please write a review! From the book description:
"Homicide detective William Wolfe thought Black River, Iowa, was in his rearview mirror when he tossed his suitcase in his trunk and headed out onto Route 13. Now, after more than a decade, Wolfe returns to help care for his ailing mother, but the road back has some dangerous curves. He soon discovers his birthplace dying from the meth plague. The bucolic ideal and old friends have been nightmarishly transformed. Not immune from his own addictions, he confronts the violent forces bringing disease, death, and disorder to those caught in the middle."

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