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True-Crime Family

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My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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Re-wilding the Highlands

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I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.

They’re more dangerous than we are.”
“Are they?” I ask. “They are wilder, certainly.”
“Isn’t it the same?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s civilization makes us violent. We infect each other.”

Inti Flynn had always had a feel for nature. Her father had been a woodsman, first working for a lumber company, then, later, living a mostly solo subsistence life, in Canada, trying his best not to contribute to the global demise. He taught Inti and her twin, Aggie, about how to live in and with the wild. Their mother, a detective in Australia, was more concerned with teaching them how to contend with the wild in civilization. There is a lot in here about parents, of both the human and lupine persuasion, teaching children or pups how to cope in the world, how to defend against predators. The human sorts offer different approaches, some counseling firm defenses, others advising understanding, and some resorting to extreme kinetic measures. There are plenty of parents teaching questionable lessons.

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Charlotte McConoughy – image from If.com.au

Dad used to tell me that my greatest gift was that I could get inside the skin of another human. That I could feel what nobody else could, the life of another, really feel it and roll around in it. That the body knows a great deal and I have the miraculous ability to know more than one body. The astonishing cleverness of nature. He also taught us that compassion was the most important thing we could learn. If someone hurt us, we needed only empathy, and forgiveness would be easy.

Inti’s gift is not metaphorical. Her ability to experience what others feel, gives her a unique advantage in understanding both wildlife and people. It also makes her very vulnerable.

I am unlike most people. I move through life in a different way, with an entirely unique understanding of touch. Before I knew its name I knew this. To make sense of it, it is called a neurological condition. Mirror-touch synesthesia. My brain re-creates the sensory experiences of living creatures, of all people and even sometimes animals; if I see it I feel it, and for just a moment I am them, we are one and their pain or pleasure is my own. It can seem like magic and for a long time I thought it was, but really it’s not so far removed from how other brains behave: the physiological response to witnessing someone’s pain is a cringe, a recoil, a wince. We are hardwired for empathy. Once upon a time I took delight in feeling what others felt. Now the constant stream of sensory information exhausts me. Now I’d give anything to be cut free.

McConaghy’s prior novel, Migrations, looked at the demise of wildlife (birds in particular, and even more particularly terns) in a slightly future world. In this one, she continues her interest in the impact of people on the natural environment. Officially, the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680. There are reports of wolves being seen as late as 1888, but Scotland has been essentially wolf-free for well over three centuries. Sadly for Scottish woodlands, it has not been farmer, sheep, or climate-change-free. Part of the problem is that the local deer population tends to linger in place long enough to lay waste to new shoots. A great way to keep them moving is to reintroduce wolves. Good for the goal of restoring natural forest, re-wilding at least part of Scotland is good for the health of the deer population as well. Thus, Inti’s presence. She is leading a team charged with re-introducing a small population of wolves to a remote part of Scotland, near the Cairngorms, a mountainous area in the highlands.

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The Cairngorms – Image from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

As one might imagine, there is considerable resistance among farmers concerned about the potential loss of livestock. The minimal-to-non-existent actual danger to humans is played up by those opposed to the reintroduction. Battle lines are drawn. The program has official sanction, but the locals have guns, and itchy fingers. And then someone goes missing. Inti’s primary concern is with the danger to the program, as she expects her wolves to be blamed.

The mystery for us is why, and how this person vanished. After a meet-cute early in the book, Inti and the local sheriff, Duncan MacTavish, team up, in a way, to try figuring out what happened. There are other mysteries as well, albeit of a different sort. What happened to Inti’s sister that had left her so damaged? Is Duncan trustworthy? The book alternates between the present and looking back at two periods in Inti’s and Aggie’s lives, with their father in British Columbia, where they learned how to live off the land, and as adults, when Inti was working on a wolf project in Alaska.

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Red deer are Scotland’s largest surviving, native, wild land mammal. It’s estimated that there are 400,000 of them in the Scottish Highlands – image and text from Good Nature Travel

Inti struggles with her desire to protect her wolves, and her need to engage with the locals as something other than as a know-it-all outsider. The complexity of the town’s social relations is quite fascinating. Duncan is our eyes on this, and a big help to Inti, knowing so well the people in the community in which he had grown up, understanding motivations, relationships, and local history much better than any outsider could.

Abuse is a central issue, in both the Old and the New World, whether at the hands of the distraught, the damaged, or the downright evil. Multiple characters in Scotland come from homes in which there was violence, whether against spouses, children, or both. It is clear that one of the locals has beaten his wife. Other instances of family violence are important to the story. The abuse that does take place is mostly done off-screen, reported, but not seen first-hand. Inti’s attempt at restoring the Scottish landscape, of giving new opportunities to a much-reviled species mirrors her attempt to heal, to restore the vitality of her own family.

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A wealthy landowner in Scotland is hoping to bring wolves from Sweden to the Scottish Highlands to thin the herd of red deer. – image and text from Good Nature Travel

One can probably make too much of it (I am sure I did), but I found it fun to look at the wolves for indications of comparison to the human characters. Was Inti like Six (the wolves are given numbers not names, for the most part). Who might be lone wolves? Who is fiercest in protecting their pack/family? Who are the alphas?

There is much resonance with Migrations. Both leads are working far from home. Both are trying to do something to help in a world that seems set against accepting any. Although she has her sister with her in Wolves, Inti is primarily a solo actor. She finds a family of a sort with charming, and not-so-charming locals, in the way that Franny Stone in Migrations teamed up with the fishing boat crew. Like Franny, Inti bears the burden of deep, traumatic family secrets. Like Franny, she is trying to find her true home, whether that be in Scotland, Canada, Australia, or maybe wherever the wolves are. Inti has a near-magical power of sensitivity. Franny had special abilities in the water. Like Franny, Inti teams up with a guy in a position of some power. In Migrations it was Ennis Malone, captain of a fishing boat. Here it is Duncan McTavish, the local sheriff. In both novels McConaghy shows the concerns of those imperiled by the front lines of attempts to correct a bad ecological situation. Of the two, this novel struck me as a bit more optimistic about the possibilities of making meaningful change.

In the real world, wolves have not been officially introduced back into Scotland, but there is one wealthy individual who is looking at doing so in a limited way. Who knows? Maybe the re-wilding of Scotland is not entirely a pipe dream.

Once There Were Wolves offers a close look at the issues involved in programs of this sort. The locals are accorded plenty of respect for and insight into their legitimate concerns, as we get to see past the rejectionist veneer. Very hard choices must be made, and the decision-making is very adult. Inti is a tough young woman with a challenging responsibility. It is easy to care about what happens to her. McConaghy keeps the action flowing, so there is no danger of losing interest. The main mystery is very intriguing and the final explanation is twisty and wonderful, with Inti finding her inner Miss Marple to sleuth her way to the truth. Once you sink your canines into this one, you will not want to let go. There are hankie moments as well. Tears will be shed. Set in a wintry place, it seems an ideal book to cool off with in the hot summer months. (Of course, if you read this in cooler months, it is distinctly possible that you will be wearing some wool, and thus will be reading a book about wolves while in sheep’s clothing. Just sayin’.) It seems appropriate to keep a modest supply of whiskey near to hand, just for ambience, of course. Or for those of the teetotaler persuasion, maybe some Irn-Bru. As for the best place in which to read this book, and read it you should, that should be obvious, in a den.

There is violence in me, in my hands, which vibrate with the need to exert some kind of control, some defiance, and if it is revenge for the things that have been taken from me then fine, I will have that too. I am done with falling prey. I will be predator, at last. I will forget the walls and the self-protection and I will become the thing I hunt and feel it all.

Review posted – July 9, 2021

Publication date – August 3, 2021

I received an E-ARE of OTWW in return for a fair review. Thanks to Amelia at Flatiron, to NetGalley for hosting the book and to MC for facilitating.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
Interviews with CM re this book have been as tough to find as Scottish wolves, but I did unearth an oldie, from 2014. I am sure after the book is released there will be more interviews available. There are several interview links in my review of Migrations
—–AusRom Today – AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlotte McConaghy – from 2014 – this relates to her very early, romantic fantasy writing

My review of McConaghy’s previous book
—–2020 – Migrations

Items of Interest
—–Sea Wolves – Panthalassa.Org – mentioned in Chapter 8
—–Good Nature Travel – Bringing Wolves Back to Scotland by Candace Gaukel Andrews
—–The Guardian – Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction by Claire Armitstead
—–Wiki on mirror touch synesthesia – yes, this is a real thing
—–Travel Medium – Why Are There No Trees in Scotland? by Paul McDougal – this is a wonderful overview of how Scotland lost so much of its woodlands over the last 6,000 years
—–Public Domain Review – Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – Inti’s father kept a copy for use in his work – Chapter 3
—–The Guardian – Rewilding: should we bring the lynx back to Britain? by Phoebe Weston – 8/16/21 – One proposed re-wilding site is the same one used in this book

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When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

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A town like this feels so safe and apart from the outside world. You start to wonder if it’s dangerous.”
“The fairy tale of it, you mean?”
“Right. False security. You stop looking over your shoulder, because the picture feels real. Nothing bad can happen when there’s a moat around the whole town, right? Battlements. Guards at the gate. But the dragon shows up anyway.”

“These are my obsessions,” Paula McLain said. “How do we survive the unsurvivable? How do we climb off the table as a victim? How did we get there in the first place?” – from the NY Times Personal article

San Francisco Detective Anna Louise Hart has problems of her own. Something terrible has happened to her child. Her husband is not eager to see her. Needing to get away, she heads north to a place she sees as a refuge of sorts, Mendocino, the place where, after a succession of bad experiences, she had finally been taken in as a foster by a warm, supportive couple. Memories abound, marked by the presence of an enigmatic sculpture in the middle of town.

Above the roofline of the Masonic Hall and against a gauzy sky, the figures of Time and the Maiden stand sharp and white, the most iconic thing in the village. A bearded, elderly figure with wings and a scythe, braiding the hair of a girl standing before him. Her head bowed over a book resting on a broken column, an acacia branch in one of her hands, an urn in the other, and an hourglass near her feet—each object an enigmatic symbol in a larger puzzle. The whole carving like a mystery in plain sight.

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Time and the Maiden – image from Serendipity Patchwork

Almost immediately I knew the story had to be set in Mendocino—a small coastal town in Northern California where I spent time in my twenties—and that the time frame of the narrative had to be pre-DNA, pre-cellphone, before the Internet had exploded and CSI had lay people thinking they could solve a murder with their laptop. – from the Author’s Note

Hart’s work in San Francisco had centered on finding lost children. She was in a special unit for this. It’s the sort of work that leads one to sacrifice other aspects of one’s life. I pictured a missing persons expert obsessed with trying to save a missing girl and also struggling to make peace with her past. And straight away, after renting an off-the-grid cabin several miles outside of town, reconnecting with an old friend who is now the sheriff, saying Hi to some other folks and places from her days there as a kid, a local girl, the daughter of a famous actress, vanishes. Having some expertise in the field, Anna offers to help, and the game is afoot.

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Paula McLain – image from Writers Write

…when she started digging into the research, she realized that there had been real-life abductions in California at that time — including the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma bedroom. McLain weaves Klaas’s tragic story into the novel, reminding the reader of yet another young woman who never had a chance to shine. – from the NY Times Personal interview

In addition to Polly, McLain incorporated into her story several real-world disappeared girls, as points of reference. She does not go into their characters much beyond rough descriptions. But this does let us know that the fictional tale she presents has a very real flesh-and-blood basis, the time she portrays presenting more peril than usual. And she does not stop there in paralleling the real and the created.

Sexual abuse of children is a focus, as is coping with being in the foster care system. These are experiences with which McLain is painfully familiar. In the Times article noted in EXTRA STUFF, Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy, she writes about her abuse as a foster kid.

Some nights nothing happened. Other nights I would wake to a shape in the doorway, the husband’s inky silhouette. And then I would disappear inside myself, barely breathing, frozen. I vanished so expertly that I wasn’t actually in my body any longer as he peeled me away from my sister. I didn’t make a sound.

It would have been easy to make this a total downer of a story, but McLain points out some of the bright sides as well. Anna recalls with great love the supportive foster family she had lived with in Mendocino, and shows how a community can come together to try to help each other, in this case reflecting the real-world effort made to find Polly Klaas when she was abducted.

McLain’s descriptions border on the transcendental at times, both lyrically beautiful, and evocative of underlying story content. They reminded me of the poetic magnificence (as well as the issues taken on) of Rene Denfeld. So, it seemed fitting that in the acknowledgments, Denfeld is listed among authors whose work inspired her.

Above the cloud line, an eerie yellow sphere is rising. It’s the moon, gigantic and overstuffed, the color of lemonade. I can’t stop watching it roll higher and higher, saturated with brightness, like a wound. Or like a door lit entirely by pain.

Uh oh. The eeriness of the environment resonates throughout the novel, but it is also clear that Anna has an appreciation for nature, a feeling of connection, gaining a sense of comfort from it, even though it can seem very dark at times.

Firs and pines and Sitka spruce thicken around me, pushing in from all directions, black-tipped fairy-tale trees that knit shadows out of nothing, night out of day—as if they’ve stolen all the light and hidden it somewhere. God, but I’ve missed them.

And building on nature’s challenge, she sees hope in people’s ability to contend with extreme and persistent difficulties.

“Krummholz” is the word for this kind of vegetation I remember from one of Hap’s [her beloved foster father] lessons, a German term that means “bent wood.” Over many decades, hard weather has sculpted the trees into grotesque shapes. The salt-rich north wind kills the tips of the branches, forcing them to dip and twist, swooping toward the ground instead of the sky. They’re a living diagram of adaptation, of nature’s intelligence and resilience. They shouldn’t be able to keep growing this way, and yet they do.

She adds some lovely noir content and cadences, the sort one might expect from a female continental op, substituting a chemical solution for the usual flask, or lower desk drawer fifth. I zipped myself into a dress I couldn’t feel, so high on Ativan it could have been made of knives. Fairy tales come in for several mentions, not in a comforting way. There be monsters here.

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Maps from the book

The story is intriguing and keeps one eager to read more. What happened with Cameron, the primary missing girl, an adoptee? Was she abducted? Had she been lured away? Had she been abused? Given the number of girls gone missing, is there a serial killer working the area? Clues are followed, each bit leading to new suspicions, whether dead-ending or propelling the investigation. There is tension between the investigating partners, as one might expect. The book clicks along at a good pace, and delivers the goods.

There were some elements that interfered at times, though. Anna comes on a seemingly stray pooch who becomes a valued ally. Except it seemed that the dog was in and out, here, then not here, as if the notion of a canine companion appealed (the dog is given the name of McLain’s real-life furry friend), but did not seem fully integrated into the story. More a device than a character. In another instance Anna is going about the business of investigating a possible abduction or worse, with several local suspects, and this San Francisco detective is NOT PACKING! This is like the monster movie scene in which the small child runs back toward the room where the creature was last seen to retrieve a cherished stuffy. Really? If you’re gonna do that, at least offer up a satisfactory preparatory explanation. Did I miss this somewhere? A flashlight goes dark at a critical moment – puh-leez! And a character appears at a particularly opportune moment to offer crucial assistance. Sure, whatever.

But don’t let the occasional eye-roll distract from the overall wonderfulness of the book. In addition to keeping your blood pressure at an unhealthy level, McLain offers up some real-world payload in educating us about the plague of sexual abuse of children, particularly the potential perils of foster care, and how the afflicted are damaged in more than just physical ways. She points out the sometimes complex nature of abductions, and how pain can travel down through generations. You will never think of the bat signal the same way again. The stars may certainly go dark for those on the receiving end of these societal horrors, but in both keeping us entranced and filling us with new intel and perspectives, Paula McLain shines very brightly indeed.

You know, we don’t always understand what we’re living inside of, or how it will matter. We can guess all we want and prepare, too, but we never know how it’s going to turn out.

Review posted – April 9. 2021

Publication date – April 13, 2021

I received a digital ARE from Ballantine Books through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Instagram pages

From the bio on McLain’s site:

Paula McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker, a cocktail waitress–before discovering she could (and very much wanted to) write. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996. She is the author of The Paris Wife…an international bestseller…She is also the author of two collections of poetry; a memoir, Like Family, Growing up in Other People’s Houses; and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives with her family in Cleveland.

Interview
—–NY Times – April 3, 2021 – Paula McLain Wrote a Thriller — and This Time, It’s Personal by Elisabeth Egan

Items of Interest from the author
—– There is a list of links to other writing on her site
—–NY Times – 3/12/2021 – Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy

Items of Interest
—–Book Club Kit
—–Rainer Maria Rilke – I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone – A line from this poem turns up in Chapter 22
—–The Reid Technique – of police interrogation -noted in Chapter 24
—–The Polly Klaas Foundation

Songs/Music
—–Bob Seger – Against the Wind – In chapter 34, Anna hears this on her car radio
—–The Little Mermaid – Under the Sea referenced in chapter 46

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The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

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”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller