The second novel from Claire Davis (author of the award-winning "Winter Range") is being billed as a literary thriller. That's not really even half...

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“Season of the Snake”

By Claire Davis

St. Martin’s Press, 276 pp., $23.95

The second novel from Claire Davis (author of the award-winning “Winter Range”) is being billed as a literary thriller.

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That’s not really even half true: “Season of the Snake” is a creepy page-turner, but it’s far from literary. There’s one startling scene alone, involving a dead mouse in a men’s room, that will certainly consign the book forever to the pulp caste in the Dewey Decimal hierarchy. And it’s much more perversely compelling than it is really thrilling.

The heroine, like Davis, lives in Lewiston, Idaho, near the Snake River. Nance Able is a passionate herpetologist who stalks vipers — collecting specimens, trudging along with her trusty snake hook through the scenic Northwest brush, cheerfully poking and prodding nests of rattlers.

Nance’s secretive second husband (the first is murdered in the book’s hallucinatory prologue) may turn out to be a snake, also. Slithery Ned is a seemingly bland and pleasant elementary-school principal whose behavior evolves from off-putting to outright sinister.

Davis’ on-the-nose themes are easy to grasp: Like snakes, the book’s characters are concerned with shedding their respective skins and leaving the past behind. Nance’s sister, who has a long history of being drawn into abusive relationships, turns up with an eye to creating a new life.

The prose can be jangling; when Nance muses about her herpetological specimens, it’s a weird combination of Harlequin Romance reverie and clinical description. In a winter den crammed with sleeping, interwoven snakes, she ruminates dreamily about “this tangling of too much flesh” and is “strangely comforted by the utter physicality of the creatures.”

In a much queasier bit, we get a lengthy, graphic description of Ned, perched on the toilet enduring intestinal spasms. “There’s a gurgling in his gut again, and he breaks into a sweat as his bowel torques … ” Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

I feel safe in predicting that “Season of the Snake” will never be taught in middle schools. The snake plot meets and intersects with a serial-killer plot and a subplot about a neighbor’s gruesome death. The ending is abrupt and unsatisfying, and feels calculated to make the book marketable to Hollywood.

Having said that, I must dismount from my high horse to confess that I read it almost straight through; there’s no denying its lurid grip on the imagination.