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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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