Sometimes mysteries are whodunit stories—relatively straightforward missing person or homicide with some thrilling moments and twisty endings. But I read two mysteries lately with just a little more. In both cases, the authors included relevant issues from our real-life world. These decisions about story construction were well done and added wonderful complexity to the stories. The combination of great characters, intense issues, and propulsive plot pulled me into each book and held me until the resolution.
When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain
As the story begins, Anna Hart flees her life in San Francisco for her childhood home in semi-rural, small-town Mendocino. At first, it’s unclear why she needs a break from her regular life. But as she gets pulled into events in Mendocino, we learn more about her recent and more distant past. Anna’s life is repeatedly touched by missing and victimized young women. Her childhood experiences affected her so deeply that she became a detective specializing in these cases. And her world also reels from a missing girl (with a famous mother) in Mendocino. McLain also incorporates a real-life California case in her novel—Polly Klaas’s abduction from Petaluma.
McLain previously published historical fiction work, and setting this novel in 1993 incorporates some elements of that. But this is primarily a thriller and mystery novel. Along with a man from her past, Anna works on the town’s missing or abducted teenager case. At the same time, the details of Anna’s own past are a mystery that McLain doles out piece by piece.
A layer of purpose and education wrap around all of these plot points and connections to real-life mysteries. McLain uses Anna’s thought process and detective situation to include plenty of psychological information. She does so with a deft hand, but this reader definitely felt the layer of “teaching” happening here.
Once I started this book, I focused on it. The story is compelling enough to set other reading and activities aside. And McLain’s ending doesn’t disappoint!
Send Down the Rain by Charles Martin
Joseph and Allie were teenage sweethearts. But when we meet them, life has spent decades beating them up emotionally and physically. JoJo is a man who fought in Vietnam, learned he had some unexpected talents, and came home immeasurably changed, as many veterans do. Allie was the girl left behind, running her dysfunctional family’s restaurant and hotel. She marries twice, losing touch with JoJo.
But when he comes upon a woman and her two children in the woods of Georgia, he gets uncharacteristically involved. Delivering them to Florida brings him close to his childhood home—and to a recent tragedy in Allie’s life. Together they begin investigating a couple of mysteries. Then they discover a virtual hornet’s nest of secrets and drama.
This is my first Charles Martin book. Choosing Christian fiction is rare for me. But this was a terrific and absorbing book. For me, the story is just a good mystery, with a wholesome romance. And most importantly, Martin throws in plenty of surprising plot twists. Getting involved in JoJo and Allie’s story was easy since they’re likable characters. Although JoJo is reclusive, Martin gives him a heart of gold. And Allie definitely needs a knight-in-shining-armor after dealing with more than her share of jerks.
Along the way, Martin discusses the PTSD that many veterans live with, as well as the realities of undocumented life in America. These elements play a big enough role to be an obvious part of Martin’s intentions. But he manages to bring important humanity to both.
Now that I’ve read this one, I’ll definitely pick up more of Martin’s work since he crafts such an engaging and meaningful story.
Obviously, I read these as an unintended book pairing. But you could easily pair them together!