Reviewed by Mollie Waters
When Carolyn Haines presented her new work The Darkling at the Alabama Book Festival in April 2013, the question on her audience’s mind was who in the world is R. B. Chesterton? Haines is best known for her popular crime novels the Bones series, which has a devoted following, but she also dabbles in pieces that are much darker and more haunting. So as not to confuse or disappoint her Bones devotees, Haines has created an alter ego, R. B. Chesterton, which she will use for her new thrillers. Fortunately for Haines’s fans everywhere, the new name does not interfere with her excellent style of writing.
Set in Coden, Alabama, in the summer of 1974, The Darkling features as its main character Mimi Bosarge, private tutor to the Henderson family’s three children. Margo, Erin, and Donald are the beautiful, privileged offspring of Berta and Bob Henderson, California transplants who have resurrected dilapidated Belle Fleur, formerly the most prized home in the Coden community. Bob, an architect, and Berta, a homemaker, are the parents Mimi always dreamed of having but was denied when her own folks perished in a house fire. Looking for a place to call her own, Mimi feels right at home with the Hendersons, and tutoring their perfect — well, almost perfect — children and living at Belle Fleur fulfills her need for familial attachment.
Yet, when Mimi’s grandmother Cora, a foster care worker, asks the Hendersons to take in a young girl named Annie, Mimi’s perfect world slowly begins to crumble. With another girl in the house competing for her parent’s affection, Margo, the oldest and Annie’s own age, feels left out. Margo lashes out at everyone, but when her outbursts become more pronounced, Mimi is the one who steps in to try to reestablish balance, only Margo simply will not hear reason. She stays out late, dates a boy her parents don’t like, and is mean to everyone. When she disappears, though, no one is prepared for the turmoil that follows.
At the center of all the trouble, at least in Mimi’s eyes, is Annie. Annie seems too familiar with both Belle Fleur and the adjoining property Paradise Inn, a once popular dive of movie stars and locals alike. Claiming to have no memory, Annie knows too much about Coden for Mimi’s comfort. Yet it is when Annie begins to scare Erin and Donald with her terrifying tales of times gone by that Mimi feels the battle lines have been drawn, but no one, especially not Bob or Berta, sees that Annie is just no good.
Complicating matters, Donald, the youngest and Mimi’s special favorite, has had several unaccountable mishaps since Annie’s arrival. Each of Donald’s accidents follows the sighting of a strange creature, something not quite human, that has taken up residence in the swamps surrounding Belle Fleur. It seems to be tracking both Mimi’s and the children’s every move, and while no one is sure what it is, other than pure evil, Mimi knows she must discover the connection between Margo’s disappearance and the creature’s arrival before it is too late for them all.
Although Haines has adopted a new name for herself, her style is, thankfully, the same as always. Haines has an uncanny knack for creating the perfect hook at the end of each chapter that forces readers to learn what will happen next. While this ability is something writers must possess in order to remain successful, the problem it creates for readers is trying to devour in one sitting a book that should be savored instead. The novel has several subtle twists that heighten the engrossing ending, but speeding through the book will only cause readers to miss tantalizing tidbits.
With The Darkling, Haines firmly reestablishes herself as a queen of darkness and suspense. While Bones fans might indeed find the work a disconcerting change, those who enjoy Haines’s novels Summer of the Redeemers and Penumbra will feel right at home with The Darkling. One can only hope that the promise of R. B. Chesterton will be fulfilled in future thrillers by this highly gifted author.
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