Jenny Page, editorial manager of The Murder Room, lets us in on why Becky Masterman’s latest novel is the flawless must-read it is . . .
That same question ran around my mind as I read Fear the Darkness.
Set in Arizona, home of Brigid Quinn, retired FBI agent, the action takes place, pretty much, between three houses, the church and the mall. Oh, and the desert, another character in the novel: silent and unpredictable, full of strange wildlife, yet beautiful nonetheless.
But this is not the Wild West; damaging one of those huge, multi-limbed cacti will get you fined $10,000, a detail placing us firmly in the twenty-first century with its law and order and its environmental concerns.
Right from the start I felt completely at home, drawn close to Brigid as to a friend. Yet very soon, the voice of suspicion was whispering, whispering, whispering.
Brigid Quinn is sixty, and still capable of flooring a man young enough to be her grandson. She’s filling her retirement with useful occupations, such as teaching self-defence at a women’s refuge. She’s fairly newly married to Carlo, an ex-priest, and at last is learning to enjoy life.
She’s from a family of cops, all orbiting an alcoholic former cop father (she hints at her own past drink issues); with her mother intimacy-averse, her life has been wound tight by this totemic force.
Joe, the son of neighbours, the Neilsens, has drowned in the swimming pool, ruled accidental. His mother is driven nearly crazy with grief; the stepfather has been dragged over the coals, but is in the clear. Mrs Neilsen, convinced that not enough has been done to find out what happened that night, inveigles Brigid into re-examining the case, so Brigid begins to line up interviews and digs around in the files.
At home, she and Carlo have a guest, her seventeen-year-old niece, Gemma-Kate. GK has nursed her mother, Brigid’s sister-in-law, for years, up to her death of MS. Now she and Carlo have brought GK back with them after the funeral, so that she can gain Arizona residency and go to college in-state to study biochemistry. And get a break from her family. GK is bright, but distant; you wonder what’s going on inside.
Then one of Brigid’s pugs nearly dies after eating the entrails of a poisonous toad. Here begins the novel’s central struggle between Brigid and GK. The conflict erupts every now and again, when odd things start to happen. The whispers of suspicion get louder.
Carlo, so empathic, so kind, so wise, gets on well with GK; insisted it was no problem whatever for her to come and live with them.
Brigid and Carlo are cradle Catholics, but with the freedom of the older and wiser, opt for an Episcopalian church, St Martin’s in the Fields, on Sunday mornings. At coffee after the service, Brigid meets the gushy, larger-than-life Mallory. Mallory is elegant, has been an art gallery owner and dancer and flirts with everyone. Looking at Mallory chatting with Carlo, Brigid reflects on what a good-looking couple they make, ‘an advertisement for an erectile dysfunction drug’.
Check. Carlo, the husband who could be too good to be true. Too different to Brigid, perhaps, to stay interested in her.
The Quinns don’t really do friends, but Mallory is one of those outgoing, generous women who can’t be refused, and she and Brigid spend time at cocktail bars, shopping and at Mallory’s home, where her husband, Owen, lies paralysed after a terrible car accident, looked after by his wife and a live-in nurse.
Check. The new friend, husband paralysed; she must miss the sex. How fussy might she be about the boundaries around Brigid’s husband?
The novel is narrated entirely in the first person, a common enough feature of the psychological thriller, and while I was on Brigid’s side – vulnerable, defensive, hypervigilant – I couldn’t help thinking, Hang on, how is the world looking through her eyes and hers alone?
For, soon after the dog-poisoning incident, Brigid herself begins to show worrying symptoms. She freezes while walking across a parking lot. Her hand cramps up while she’s trying to write. She feels dizzy, sick. The sights swing back towards GK, who has taken over the cooking.
Or is it the onset of Parkinson’s? The symptoms are identical. Is it just her age catching up with her? A serious senior moment?
But there’s worse. Does someone want to stop Brigid from finding out about Joe’s drowning? It’s a small community, with the church a magnet for several families including, at one time, Joe’s.
Who could possibly want her dead, and why?
Oh, I envy you, who have not yet read Fear the Darkness. You’ll be so easily, so sweetly reeled in by the gentle, lulling tone of Brigid’s narrative. Full of intimacy-building detail, you’re hooked before you know it.
It’s almost like reading a romantic novel. That’s the thing; in parts, it is. So fall in love.
But watch your back.
If Fear the Darkness was made into a film, who would you cast as Brigid? Or Carlo, or Gemma-Kate? We’d love to know. Leave us a comment, below!
Becky Masterman created her heroine, Brigid Quinn, while working as an editor for a forensic science and law enforcement press. Her debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, was a finalist for the Edgar Awards and the CWA Gold Dagger, as well as the Macavity, Barry, ITW and Anthony awards. Becky lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband. Find out more at Becky Masterman’s website or follow her on Facebook.