“All the Lovely Children,” by Andrew Nance

Andrew Nance

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Andrew Nance does two very difficult things in his new book, All the Lovely Children (Red Adept, 2018), and he does both exceptionally well. First, Nance infuses the often-formulaic serial killer subgenre with fresh, new energy by providing innovative twists, a lush setting that juxtaposes beauty and horror, and sharp, clean writing. Second, he essentially writes two books in one, and each story line is equally captivating with suspense that builds naturally to an unpredictable climax.

In All the Lovely Children, the two story lines are connected across a 23-year span by the protagonist Charly Bloom, a woman detective who faced down a serial killer as a youngster. As readers first meet Charly, someone is snatching girl children in Temperance, North Carolina, in autumn 1982. The town is filled with tourists seeking the red and gold leaves of autumn in the mountains, and an unlucky child of out-of-town visitors disappears from a park. All in all, four girls are missing when Charly gets a call asking for her help in stopping the abductions and murders.

The twist is that 23-years ago in 1959, someone began snatching girls in Temperance also. Charly, a tomboy—along with her two best friends, Bobby and Micah Lee—are just beginning to enjoy a lazy, innocent summer of baseball and swimming holes, when a meteoroid shower—or something like that—flashes through the heavens. Soon after, the news hits that someone abducted a young girl at night from her bedroom through an open window. Charly dubs the villain as “the Snatcher.” As other girls disappear, the local sheriff misses some clues. Charly—an avid reader of detective novels and with a quick and inquisitive mind of her own—spots overlooked clues. This puts her at odds with the inept sheriff, who is more chagrined than grateful for her help. In turmoil over the missing girls, and lacking faith in the sheriff, Charly actively investigates and drags Bobby and Micah Lee into a search for the missing girls. Her impulsiveness and headstrong determination to find the Snatcher will, naturally, end quite badly for all.

As the 1959 story lines builds suspense chapter by chapter, Nance carefully weaves in the 1982 plot in which a grown-up Charly—still quick-minded, athletic, and inquisitive, but emotionally and physically scared from her 1959 clash with the Snatcher—is invited back to Temperance. Now in her thirties, she is a private detective and a veteran of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations.

Some folks Charly knew as a young teen are still in town and willing to help her. Others are gone. She learns that just as in 1959 a meteorite—or something like it—has crossed over Temperance. The bungling sheriff from 1959 is long departed, replaced by Kit, a competent and caring man—and Charly’s former lover. Overwhelmed by what is happening and not trusting the help offered by the State Bureau of Investigations, Kit hires Charly to join the team to stop the 1982 killer. He believes in her detective skills, but he also has an ulterior motive in calling her home.

As the two plot lines both focus on Charly, she must be a particularly vivid and engaging character to hold the stories together. And, given that the tough female detective is now a staple with the successes of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, Nance must add something more to Charly than mere toughness. Creating a character within these confines might be a daunting task to an author with less talent, but Nance does a grand job with Charly.

In part, Nance achieves his success based upon two well-worn writers’ workshop rules: show, don’t tell; and great conflicts build great stories. Charly acts in a series of life-threatening engagements with a physical strength, agility, and sheer gutsiness that shows just how tough she is without the need for any narrative on it. That she was a tomboy athlete as a young teen supports her grown-up strength and adds credibility to such scenes as where she bests two bikers in an attempted rape.

But it’s the conflicts that make Charly so interesting. Her outward world is certainly filled with conflicts—she was driven from the State Bureau of Investigations by clashes with a less competent male superior and she’s now trying but failing to stop a child killer. Her inner landscape is troubled with emotional conflicts left over from her 1959 confrontation with the Snatcher and unresolved guilt over that misadventure. And then there’s Kit, and all the emotional turmoil of past love and second chances. Even her personality traits are in conflict as she is impulsive, yet analytical; intelligent, yet often thoughtlessly reckless; cynical, yet frequently trusting.

By creating such a strong, intriguing character, Nance pulls together the 1959 and the 1982 stories of a child killer around Charly. But the author’s difficult task is still compounded by the two-stories-in-one aspects of All the Lovely Children. He must move seamlessly between the two stories to keep readers with him in both worlds, which Nance does with finesse.

By switching between the 1959 and the 1982 story lines in a chapter-by-chapter manner, Nance skillfully builds suspense in each, doubling the cliff-hanger/edge-of-your-seat impact of each plot line. This is a tough trick for a writer to pull off because each story line must work independently on its own, and yet the two should blend in a manner that keeps the story flowing. Pacing becomes twice as tricky when the two stories are meshed and different sets of characters are at play. And, by having a central character—Charly—linking the two stories, Nance has to keep Charly “in character” in the two stories despite the 23 years between them. That is, readers must believe the mature Charly is exactly who the teen Charly would grow up to be.

Despite the inherent difficulties of the dual structure, Nance pulls it off exceptionally well, using both his skills as a writer and his vivid imagination. He peoples both time frames with compelling characters, sharing a few between the time frames. For example, in 1959, an alcoholic writer and a disabled man are central to the developing drama, as well as a Native American man. By 1982, the writer is a recovering alcoholic, the Native American suffers from dementia, and the disabled man is gone from the story. In the 1982 story, a motorcycle gang, a bed and breakfast owner, and a restaurant staffer add new dimensions to the story—and compound the suspect list.

Given the similarities between the kidnapping and killing of children in Temperance in 1959 and 1982, the suspect list is more bedeviling in this story than most. Is the 1982 villain a copycat? Is it even possible that it’s the same killer? And is the meteorite shower significant or just an eerie coincidence?

One of the most interesting twists Nance adds to this book is that Charly, though clearly the hero, fails in both 1959 and 1982 to figure out just who the child killer is. She does not solve the case in any traditional detective manner. True, her actions in 1982 lead to a satisfying (and surprising) resolution, but not because she tracks the clues to a logical conclusion. Rather, her impulsiveness and determination cause her to stumble into the killer’s lair in 1982 just as in 1959. That was as brave a technique for Nance to use as is Charly’s own bullheaded tumble into the killer’s realm.

While the characters and suspense are the key elements working to make All the Lovely Children such an engrossing novel, there’s also a bit of romance. Nance flips the clichés in dealing with Kit the sheriff and Charly the detective to add a fresh twist to their troubled romance, but to say more would be a plot spoiler.

All in all, Nance has done a marvelous job in creating a well-written, suspenseful novel. His language is crisp and fresh; his world-building, authentic; and his pacing, just fast enough to keep readers at the edge of their seats but slow enough to let them enjoy the ride. He has crafted a compelling, engrossing novel with more than one scene of gritty-realism that will prickle the back of your neck.

Nance is an award-winning author of young adult books, including Daemon Hall (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers). It was named an American Library Association Quick Pick for the Reluctant Reader, a New York Library Book for the Teen Age, and nominated for an Edgar Award in YA, as well as an ALA Teens Top 10 for 2008.  In addition to being a writer, Nance is an actor and amateur historian. He spent over twenty years working in the radio industry up and down the east coast and still volunteers at a St. Augustine, Florida, college radio station. He lives in St. Augustine with his family.

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