Hess (Skyscraper, 2016, etc.) returns with a dark thriller set in late 19th-century St. Louis, where the lives of a teenage boy and a renowned architect intersect.
Fifteen-year-old orphan Calhoun McBride lives by the banks of the Mississippi River, a street-wise river rat surviving by earning a nickel an hour on the night shift at Snopes brewery—and often, through prostitution. When he’s saved enough for train fare, he plans to head west, perhaps to Wyoming. Clement Cartwright, originally from St. Louis but now based in Chicago, arrives in town for the grand opening of a celebrated skyscraper he’s designed. Also in town is the dangerous, deranged Belasco Snopes, the wealthy and powerful owner of the brewery that bears his name, who’s determined to take Clement down. One night, Belasco follows Calhoun to Clement’s hotel room and realizes that he can destroy the architect with what he’s found out about him. On the sidelines is the melancholy, 30-something socialite Dolores Brattridge, who, together with her husband, is to host a high society welcome dinner for Clement. Calhoun, Clement, Belasco, and Dolores take turns narrating the story, and Hess effectively gives each voice a cadence that reflects his or her education, background, and current station in life. Of the four, Dolores is the least developed; she interacts with each of the three other primary characters, but the storyline doesn’t particularly benefit from her narration. From the beginning, it’s apparent that Hess is a skillful wordsmith, capable of strong evocative prose: “At night, the Mississippi River is mean and ain’t quiet,” narrates Calhoun. “Dark waves smack the cobblestone shore and lick my dirty feet.” The melodic phrasing and riveting drama compensate for the fact that the characterization sometimes seems overwrought. The conclusion, if not quite satisfying, feels sadly inevitable.
A lyrical, gritty read with a compelling young protagonist.