By Matthew Stokoe
Matthew Stokoe's Empty Mile succeeds at showcasing the broader themes of remorse and regret apparent in any well-written noir, but stumbles over more immediate aspects of the genre, like believable minor details and logical plotting. The novel opens abruptly with Johnny Richardson's homecoming to the small town of Oakridge, CA and an offhand explanation of why he fled the country for England: Johnny's younger brother Stan suffered brain damage due to a swimming mishap that was only half Johnny's fault. Unfortunately, this early revelation leaves little chance to build the tension required to create a more satisfying reveal, and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Johnny reunites with his abandoned love, Marla, and moments later they are asked to have sex in the woods while a town politician watches —the take, 200 bucks. "I'm afraid I need the money too badly," Johnny remarks, despite numerous mentions of all the money he'd saved overseas: "there's no way I could turn down 200 dollars right now... No sir." In a more plausible twist, Johnny murders the politicians brother in law in quasi-revenge, and Johnny's friend Gareth blackmails him with the bloody weapon of choice, a lead pipe, and asks for a ransom: "Dude...I should have a share in the woman." There is an acute feeling, though, that Jonny, with the lead pipe, in the woods could just as well have been Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the dining room, as the events feel somewhat arbitrary —Stokoe hasn’t allowed the reader to get to know the characters.
Empty Mile finally hits its stride just after the three-quarter marker, when Johnny finds an old diary pertaining to the California Gold Rush and a mysterious piece of land called the Empty Mile, owned by Johnny's missing father. The history lends some much-needed credibility, and helps to stabilize the book for a barn-burning finish. A final murder creates closure for the haggard characters and leads to a dramatic, Dickensian act of self-sacrifice, bringing Stokoe's concern with past regrets to a meandering but definite full circle. Although Stokoe's pacing and ear for emotions in Empty Mile create a book that diehard noir fans would find passable, the structure and hard-to-swallow details leave minor feelings of remorse and regret on the part of the average reader.