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Darkness Peering

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The Barnes & Noble Review
While many families have a black sheep or two, hopefully most will never be faced with the brutal situation that faces Rachel Starrow, the young cop lead in Alice Blanchard's well-crafted debut, Darkness Peering. Rachel's dilemma centers around an 18-year-old murder and the stacking evidence that her beloved brother may be leading the twisted life of a serial killer. The novel is set in a peaceful, wooded Maine community, and Blanchard skillfully weaves into it several aspects of a British-style mystery -- claustrophobic setting, a local killer, intense psychological drama, the feeling of isolation -- creating a mesmerizing, swiftly-paced police-procedural, which keeps the reader guessing, hoping, and constantly jumping at shadows.

Blanchard's novel opens in Flowering Dogwood, Maine, in 1980 with local police chief Nalen Starrow and his tiny band of detectives investigating the murder of Melissa D'Agostino, a 14-year-old who suffered from Down's syndrome and has been strangled to death. Violence in Flowering Dogwood is generally nonexistent, so the murder -- on the heels of the gruesome discovery of a score of decapitated cats -- has the town on edge. Although Starrow's son, Billy, and his unruly friends confess to killing the cats, they stand firm that they know nothing about the decapitations. Starrow, of course, has his doubts, and as he continues his investigation into Melissa D'Agostino's death, he becomes convinced that Billy is to blame for the young girl's demise.

The meat of Blanchard's novel is set 18 years later: Melissa D'Agostino's death is still officially unsolved, Billy is now a teaching aid at a local school for the blind, and Rachel, who was nine at the time of Melissa's murder, is now a deputy detective for the same police force her father used to head. Rachel, who is still haunted by the murder, decides to reopen the investigation. Her attempt to put to rest her D'Agostino-related demons comes to an abrupt halt when Billy's boss and good friend, Claire, disappears. With Claire's parents frantic and demanding swift action, Rachel -- along with boss and clandestine lover Jim McKissack (who happens to be a married man) -- begins her search. With the D'Agostino case weighing heavily on her mind, Rachel secretly fingers Billy as Claire's abductor, but shudders to act upon her suspicions. Could her loving brother really be capable of commiting such an unspeakable act?

In Darkness Peering, Blanchard excels on several levels. For one, her story is 100 percent plausible. The characters are real, with true-to-life fears and deficiencies. On more than one occasion, readers will find themselves asking how they might act if faced with a similar situation. In addition, Blanchard's use of setting is admirable. Like the eerie works of Minette Walters and Elizabeth George, Blanchard uses her chosen locale to superb effectiveness. And, as all great mysteries, Darkness Peering keeps you in the dark, completely enthralled, and, on more than one occasion, absolutely horrified. It's a riveting, heartfelt human drama -- a genuine police-procedural gem from this first-time novelist.

-- Andrew LeCount

Genre: Mystery

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