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When the Stars Go Dark


When the Stars Go Dark

An emotionally turbulent detective returns home after many years away and is forced to confront the demons of her past and solve a current crime. Perhaps you have read this story before. In the hands of a skilled writer and storyteller, even a tried-and-true plot like this seems new, exciting and fresh. That is the case with famed historical novelist Paula McLain’s first thriller, WHEN THE STARS GO DARK.

Anna Hart is a successful and hardened cop who specializes in missing and exploited children. Struggling with the guilt, grief and anguish of a recent family tragedy, Anna flees San Francisco to the small town of Mendocino to be alone and gain perspective. Mendocino is where she lived for almost a decade with her beloved foster parents, Hap and Eden, and where a haunting unsolved murder set her on her career path. And, as she discovers upon her arrival, it is the scene of a recent crime, disturbingly reminiscent of the one that marked her earlier life there.

"The writing is top notch, and Anna is a complex and nuanced character. Her backstory is compelling, traumatic and deftly handled."

Fifteen-year-old Cameron Curtis has been missing for just one day. The daughter of Hollywood stars, Cameron leads a sheltered life in Mendocino, and her parents, struggling with marital issues, don’t want her thrust into the spotlight. Anna reconnects with Will Flood, a friend from her adolescent years who is now the Chief of Police. Impressed by her expertise, Will brings Anna into the investigation unofficially, hoping she can locate the teen and bring her home safe and sound. When other girls go missing in nearby towns, the pressure to get the word out about Cameron increases despite her parents’ hesitancy.

Returning to Mendocino brings up the kinds of complicated feelings that Anna is trying to avoid --- the loss of her birth family and the murder of a teen named Jenny, whom she admired. All of these memories and figures in her life get tied up in her investigation of Cameron’s kidnapping. Even as Anna rushes toward cracking the case and holds on to the hope of finding Cameron alive, she is flooded with the pain of her past. Of course, McLain wisely provides her with some loving support --- often from unexpected sources, like the homeless couple she befriends, the psychic she comes to rely on, and the dog she adopts. When Cameron’s case is finally closed, resolution can only happen for Anna when she allows herself peace and care.

In WHEN THE STARS GO DARK, McLain has taken a familiar formula and done some great things with it. The writing is top notch, and Anna is a complex and nuanced character. Her backstory is compelling, traumatic and deftly handled. McLain links the kidnappings of her fictional characters to the real-life cases of Jaycee Dugard and Polly Klaas, which heightens the tension and terror. Set in 1993, the novel captures the excitement of law enforcement as it begins to realize the possibilities of the internet and other digital modes of crime investigation. McLain also excels at allowing her setting to quietly hold and guide her characters; for Anna and her foster father, the natural surroundings provide wisdom, strength and comfort. She allows this place to be one of both danger and healing for Anna and others.

With a great pace, fascinating characters, thrills, beauty, peril, violence and forgiveness, WHEN THE STARS GO DARK has much to offer readers.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 16, 2021

When the Stars Go Dark
by Paula McLain