What’s Done in Darkness, by Laura McHugh

What’s Done in Darkness, by Laura McHugh, presents a classic dilemma for book reviews. How do you rate a book if you think a bad ending ruined an otherwise good story? I’ve run across this before. Every reader has. But I’ve never experienced such a change from enjoying a book, being engaged in the mystery, to an ending I absolutely hated. I’m afraid to say that this is the case with this book. It’s a pity. I really was enjoying this book right up until the protagonist figured things out.

Five years before What’s Done in Darkness opens, Sara was kidnapped. Unlike many other young girls who are taken off the street (or highway in Sara’s case), Sara is not sexually assaulted. Her captor strips her of most of her clothes and brutally scissors off her hair—but then Sara is inexplicably released after a week a few miles from her home. We learn in flashbacks that no one believed Sara when she told her version of events. The police believed that she’s somehow staged the whole thing. Five years on, Sara is rebuilding her life. She’s cut ties with her very religious family. She works at an animal shelter and lives with a rescued mastiff. Sara is mostly holding it together, but the panic is never far below the surface. Her control evaporates when she gets a call from an Arkansas cop who wants to go over her case because more girls have gone missing.

The chapters in What’s Done in Darkness alternate between Sara now and Sarabeth, five years ago, when she was still struggling against the rules and expectations of her parents. I felt so bad for Sarabeth five years ago. For her parents and her church, the only path forward for a girl is to marry and then “be fruitful.” Sara isn’t sure what she wants, but she knows that she doesn’t want to marry a man picked out for her by her parents. So when Sara is snatched from her family’s fruit stand, it’s not hard for the police to jump to the conclusion that Sara arranged the whole thing. It’s also little wonder that Sara deals with her past by not dealing with it. She is very reluctant when Nick calls her. She only agrees to work with him when he plays on her sympathies about other girls who have gone missing near-ish to her old hometown in Arkansas.

What is a wonder is that Sara takes to being a detective like a duck to water. Using her sister’s imminent wedding to visit her old home, Sara starts asking questions that slowly lead her to the truth. McHugh threw in a few twists that, at first, I thought were headed to some very interesting places. I don’t want to ruin the book for readers who might be interested in reading this book, but I think I can say that I first thought that McHugh was going to challenge the conventions of the genre by not wrapping things up in a single bow, with a single culprit. But then McHugh forces the plot back into ship-genre-shape and writes a fairly simple solution to the mystery, with a dollop of the thriller genre for flavor.

Mysteries that buck genre conventions are tricky. They demand that authors create something original that also pleases readers. Traditionally, readers don’t like ambiguous endings or, for mystery readers, books where the villain gets away with the crime. But when the author pulls it off, we readers end up with a great read that pushes us to think about bigger questions than whodunit. That’s what I was hoping for with What’s Done in Darkness. This might explain why I was so disappointed when the plot veered away from some very interesting ideas and pulled into such a conventional ending. I’m trying not to completely trash this book. Like I’ve said, there’s a lot to like about What’s Done in Darkness. My problem is that all my good feelings evaporated in a rushed, cliched, simplified ending.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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