The Barnes & Noble Review
The difference between mainstream and genre, or so I'm told, is that mainstream gives us character, back story, and theme in greater depth than genre. The trouble is, mainstream can also be padded, flabby, and dull, trapped in the Big Book syndrome, in which a scene that should run no longer than 400 words stretches to 4,000. My all-time favorite example of this was a bestseller in which a man turned a doorknob and the author inserted a brief history of doorknobs. Honest.
In A Darker Place, Edgar-winner Laurie R. King avoids most of the pitfalls of taking a familiar genre setup and pumping it up to bestseller size.
This is an infiltration novel, always a perilous subgenre for an author in search of fresh structures.
Professor Anne Waverly belonged to a religious cult a long time ago. The cult committed mass suicide, her husband and daughter among them. Since then, Anne, as a means of doing penance, has cooperated with FBI agent Glen McCarthy in infiltrating cults and saving children before it's too late.
King writes nice, readable prose and organizes her material dramatically. The second half of the book is probably a bit more exciting than the first, though the first 40 pages are a minimasterpiece of organization. She's a very skilled writer in all respects.
Once we see the cult at close range, King sustains a growing sense of menace. She has a nice eye for the type of people who are attracted to cults their almost psychotic joy and parallel clinical melancholy and a real sense of the power struggles that go on within any group. Except forMargaretMillar's classic novel How Like and Angel (perhaps the best mystery novel I've ever read), King has created the only fictional cult I've ever believed in. She downplays the melodrama and gives her cult members true life. She makes us accept the fact that some people out of naïveté or desperation are perfectly willing to hand themselves over to leaders of dubious intent.
As usual, character is King's greatest gift. She manages to make the innocents of this novel not only fascinating but complex, a narrative challenge to which she is more than equal. Similarly, the cynics and predators of the book are also complex. There are moments when one senses that we are finally getting a close-up look at the real Jim Joneses of this world, and it is an ambiguous, contradictory, and even moving look. Messiahs can be scarier than hell. King is too intelligent to give easy answers.
This is a serious novel disguised as a thriller and it succeeds as both. There's a lot of narrative energy here, and a story line that holds more than a few surprises. But what we find most of all here is King's unsentimental compassion for those lost not only to society but to themselves as well. A fine, fine novel.
King leaves behind the familiar haunts of Mary Russell (The Moor) and Kate Martinelli, her two series detectives, to explore the uncharted territory of religious cults with yet another compelling female protagonist, Professor Anne Waverly. For 18 years, Waverly has divided her time between teaching theology and working as an undercover operative for the FBI. This novel takes Anne inside a religious community called Change for what she vows will be her last investigative assignment. At its Arizona outpost she confronts not only the distorted goals and values of the community but the phantoms that lurk in her own past. King's theological background serves her well in this stand-alone thriller. Anne Waverly is competent and believable in each of her dual roles, and her vulnerability makes her an accessible narrator. King's facility for creating one-of-a-kind characters continues to expand. -- Nancy McNicol, Hagaman Memorial Library, East Haven, Connecticut
School Library Journal
YA-A suspense novel with another of King's strong, unique, fully formed heroines. Anne Waverly, aka spiritual-seeker Ana Wakefield, a theology professor and sometime FBI agent, has been called to what she hopes is her final assignment. Once a free-spirited cultist who belonged to a group that engaged in a mass suicide shortly after she left, Anne now works undercover to investigate such groups. This time the FBI is suspicious of a group with branches in Arizona, England, and Japan. When Anne becomes Ana, she is usually able to return to her initial seeker's intensity, belying her academic expertise in cults and their personalities. However, she is unable to detach completely for this assignment, bringing an increased emotional vulnerability and subsequent danger to her work. Ana's objectivity is compromised when she is compelled to protect some children involved in the case, including a girl who looks uncomfortably like her daughter. A scholarly tone is set by "excerpts" from Anne's notes and lectures, and the characters, even the "villains," are multifaceted. Much different from The Beekeeper's Apprentice (St. Martin's, 1994) and her other books about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, and possibly more thought-provoking, this story will not disappoint King's fans.-Susan H. Woodcock, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Anyone who is a fan of Laurie R. King (and she has many) will know that her books are frequently more demanding than the usual mystery....Professor Anne Waverly's exploits are intriguing to say the least, but you may want (or need) some religious and historical reference books alongside you as you read her story....[I]t is another fine work in her collection, one that is both absorbing and challenging.
The Mystery Reader.com
...[T]he strongest apeal of the story lies in its superb characters, especially the children who become Anne's charges. -- The New York Times Book Review
The Boston Globe
If there is a new P.D. James...I would put my money on Laurie R. King.
Eighteen years after losing her husband and daughter to a mass suicide in a Texas cult, an expert on religious sects agrees to goes undercover one more time to infiltrate a particularly insidious community. Professor Anne Waverly seems a natural for the assignment. Her knowledge of the relations between contemporary modes of spiritual expression and such historic sects as the early Christians is second to none. Since taking a teaching post at Duncan Point University, she's already taken academic leave four times to infiltrate similar cults, saving the lives of children who otherwise might have become hostages or fatalities. And she has a long working relationship with FBI agent Glen McCarthy. In her own way, though, Anne is as painfully driven as any modern messiah. She's racked with guilt over having abandoned her family, and perhaps precipitated the panic that took their lives, by her departure from that Texas cult so long ago. Her undercover work, taken on as a penance for her losses, has aged her and sapped her strength, and her intermittently scalding love/hate affair with McCarthy has left her exhausted. The moment she makes contact with the first members of the Sedona, Arizona, branch of the Change-especially with teenaged artist/basketball player Jason Delgado and his younger sister Dulcie-Anne's strengths and weaknesses collide with the force of a supernova. More than half in love with the boy-man Jason and suffocatingly unable to deal with Dulcie without seeing a twin of her dead daughter, she rises swiftly through the ranks into spiritual leader Steven Change's confidence-and thence to a dangerous posting at the British branch of the Change, far beyond her promised support andher sense of her competence.
King, whose Sherlock Holmes pastiches (The Moor) make it clear that she never takes up a familiar form without making it her own, produces an undercover thriller notable for its intensity, its psychological nuance, and its avoidance of the most obvious action-movie cliché's of the genre.
From the Publisher
"A nail-biter thriller."
The New York Times Book Review
"Laurie R. King once again astonishes with her skills in A Darker Place....Superb."
The Washington Times
"Casts a spell of psychological terror more visceral than any serial killer melodrama and that, for the thoughtful reader, offers intellectual rewards as well."
The San Diego Union-Tribune
"A literary thriller to end all literary thrillers."
Booknews from The Poisoned Pen
Read an Excerpt
The woman at the focal point of the tiered rows of red and blue seats in the lecture hall did not at first glance seem the type to hold the attention of two hundred and fifty undergraduates at the slump time of three in the afternoon. She was small and her hair was going gray, and her figure, though slim, was long past the litheness of youth. Her voice was quiet and deliberate, which in another speaker would have lulled the back rows to sleep, and the subject of her lecture was more cerebral than kept the average twenty-year-old on the edge of his chair.
The number of sleepers was few, however, and the percentage of spines inclined forward over the tiny writing surfaces attached to the chairs was high. There was an intensity in her that proved contagious, a vivid urgency in her voice and her body that overcame her undistinguished appearance and the torpor of the unseasonably early warmth of the day, transforming her limp into the stately pace of a sage and the wooden cane she leaned on into the staff of a prophetess.
In the eyes of her undergraduates, at any rate.
"What the hell is she talking about?" whispered the woman standing high up at the back of the hall, speaking to the man at her side. The two were not undergraduates; even if their age had not disqualified them, her skirt and blazer and his gray suit made them stand out in the denim-clad crowd.
The man gestured for her to be quiet, but it was too late; they had been noticed. A nearby girl glanced over her shoulder at them, then openly stared, and turned to nudge the boy next to her. The woman saw the girl's mouth form the word "narcs," and then she felt her temporary partner's hand on her elbow, pulling her out the door and out of the lecture hall. Professor Anne Waverly's voice followed them, saying, "In fourth-century Israel this concept of a personal experience of God came together with the political--" before her words were cut off by the doors, and then the police officer and the FBI agent were back out in the watery sunlight.
In truth, neither was a narcotics officer, although both had worked narcotics cases in the past. Glen McCarthy made for a bench just outside the building and dropped into it. Birdsong came, and voices of students walking past; in the distance the freeway growled to itself.
"Did you understand what she was talking about?" Gillian Farmer asked idly, examining the bench closely before she committed the back of her skirt to it.
"Merkabah mysticism as one of the bases for early Christian heresies," Glen answered absently.
She shot him a dubious glance and settled onto the edge of the bench.
"And what is mer-whatever mysticism?" she asked, although she was less interested in the question than in the underlying one of how he came by his easy familiarity with the subject of Professor Anne Waverly's arcane lecture. She listened with half an ear as he explained about the Jewish idea of the merkabah, or chariot, mystical experience, the "lifting up" of the devotee to the divine presence. The scattering of early flowers and one lethargic bee held more of her attention than his words, and he either saw this or had little to say on the subject, because he kept the lecture brief.
After a moment's silence, the bee stumbled off and the subject Gillian really wanted to talk about worked its way to the surface.
"This whole thing has got to be unconventional, at least," she said finally.
"I suppose it looks that way."
The mildness of his answer irritated her. "You don't think that hauling a middle-aged professor of religion out of her ivory tower and into the field to investigate a cult is a little unusual?"
"I wouldn't use the word "cult' in her hearing if I were you," Glen suggested. "Not unless you're interested in a twenty-minute lecture on the difference between cult, sect, and new religious movement."
Gillian Farmer was not to be diverted. "It still sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, not at all like a setup the FBI would come within a mile of."
"The bureau has changed since the days of J. Edgar. Now we do whatever works."
"And you think this will work?"
"It has three times before."
"And, as I understand it, once it didn't. People died."
"We were too late there--the final stages were already in motion before Anne could work her way in. I don't think even she can still feel much guilt about that one."
"Why on earth does she do it?" Gillian asked after a while. "Undercover work has got to be the most nerve-racking job in the world, and she's not even a cop."
But the man from the FBI was not yet ready to answer that question.
Seven minutes later, the double doors burst open and the first students tumbled out into the spring air, heading for the coffeehouse. After a pause, they were followed by the main body of participants, walking more thoughtfully and talking among themselves. When this larger group began to thin out, Glen got to his feet and turned to face the hall, pausing to run his palms over his hair and straighten his necktie. This was the first sign of nerves Gillian had seen in him, and it surprised her; since they had met ten days before, she had found McCarthy more idiosyncratic than the caricature of the FBI man, but every bit as cold and competent as the most stiff-necked of them.
Agent and police detective walked back through the double glass doors and down the hallway to the big lecture hall, where they again took up positions on the flat walkway that circled the top tier of seats. Gillian was seething with impatience; she did not at all like the feeling of being kept in the dark. McCarthy had his hands in his pockets, his feet set apart and his head drooping as he gazed down the length of the hall at Anne Waverly, who was now discussing papers, projects, and reading material with the six or eight remaining students.
She put off noticing the intruders for as long as she could--until, in fact, one of the students touched her arm and leaned forward to speak into her ear. She stood very still for three long seconds, then with great deliberation pulled off her reading glasses and slowly raised her eyes to the two figures on the high ground at the back of her lecture hall.
Her expression did not change, but even from on high Gillian Farmer could feel the impact their presence had on her. When the woman bent her head again and slid the glasses back onto her nose, she still looked strong, but she seemed older, somewhat flattened, and her uncharacteristic distraction from the words of her students was obvious. The young men and women knew that something was up and grew taut with a curiosity that verged on alarm; however, when eventually she wished them a good week, they could only disperse, reluctantly, and make their slow and suspicious way up the stairs and past the two intruders.
One boy, however, found retreat more than he could bear. He scowled at Glen as he went by, and then turned back to the podium to ask loudly, "Do you want some help, Dr. W?" His stance even more than his words made it obvious that he was offering an assistance considerably more physical than merely carrying her books, but McCarthy was careful not to smile, and Gillian Farmer merely glanced at the boy.
The woman he had called "Dr. W" did smile. "Thank you, Josh, I'll be fine."
Their protests unvoiced, the students left, with a furtive rush of low conversation that was cut off when the glass doors shut behind them. The lecturer turned her back on McCarthy and Farmer, gathering up her papers from the table and pushing them into an old leather briefcase. She buckled the case, took it up in her right hand and the cane in her left, and started for the steps, her very posture vibrating with displeasure.
Each stair was deep enough for two short footsteps, which was how she took them, leading with her right, bringing her left foot up, and taking another step with her right foot. She seemed to depend on the cane more for balance than sheer support, Gillian decided while watching the professor's slow approach. And it was the knee, she thought, rather than the hip, that was weak. Other than that, she was in good shape for a woman in her mid-forties, perhaps a vigorous fifty. Her back was straight, her graying hair worn as loose as that of her students, curling softly down on her shoulders. Her clothing, though, was far from a student's uniform of jeans and T-shirt. She was dressed in the sort of professional clothing a woman wears who does not care for dresses: khaki trousers, sturdy shoes that were almost boots, a light green linen shirt that seemed remarkably free of creases for the tail end of a day, and a dark green blazer shot through with blue threads. The clothes seemed a great deal more formal than those
of the other adult women on the campus, Gillian thought, and found herself wondering about the professor's status in the tenure stakes.
At the top of the stairs, the woman neither paused nor looked up, but merely said to the carpeting, "Come to my office, please."
They followed obediently, submitting to the hard looks of the handful of students who hovered in the distance to be quite sure their professor did not need assistance. She ignored them, as did McCarthy. Farmer tried to avoid looking as though she was escorting a prisoner, with limited success.
They went down the paved path through some winter-bare trees and past a small patch of lawn, and into another building designed by the same architect as the hall. The lecturer unlocked a door and they followed her in, and Gillian revised her speculations: If her recollection of academia was correct, this was not the office of a woman with reason to fear a lack of tenure. The room looked, in fact, like that of a high administrator or department chair, a corner office complete with Oriental carpet and wooden desk--although surely an administrator would not be surrounded by shelves sagging under the weight of books and piled high with untidy heaps of journals and loose manuscripts. The professor slammed her briefcase on the desk, dropped the keys she had just used into her jacket pocket, hooked her cane over the edge of the desk, and sat down.
"Close the door, Glen."
McCarthy shut the door and settled into one of the three chairs arrayed in front of the desk. Gillian Farmer tucked the strap of her shoulder bag over the back of one of the other chairs, hesitated, and took a step forward with her hand out.
"Gillian Farmer," she said. "San Francisco Police Department."
The professor looked at the hand for a moment before reaching out to take it with her own. "Anne Waverly, Duncan Point University. And occasionally FBI. Glen, what are you doing here? I thought I was finished with you."
He did not say a word, but without taking his eyes from hers he reached inside his jacket and withdrew a thick, oversized manila envelope. This he laid softly on the wooden surface between them, allowing his fingers to remain for some seconds on the buff paper before he pulled his hand back. Anne Waverly tore her gaze away from his and stared at the envelope as if it might sprout scaly skin and rear up to strike her. When eventually she looked back at him, for the first time since she had seen them standing at the back of her lecture hall she gave them an expression, one that lay somewhere between exhaustion and loathing.
"Get out of here, Glen."
He immediately stood up. "My cell phone number's in there. Don't wait too long to call--Farmer here has to get back to her caseload."
The two intruders left the office. McCarthy closed the door quietly behind them and strode off down the hallway.
"So much for "whatever works,'" Gillian Farmer said when she caught up to him. Her mind was already moving toward what she could do next, now that Anne Waverly had turned them down. She did not have many options left: The thought of being forced to do nothing filled her with deep apprehension.
"She'll do it." McCarthy sounded completely sure of himself.
"For Christ sake, Glen, she threw us out of her office."
"She won't be able to keep away."
"Oh, right," she said sarcastically. "She sounded so enthusiastic."
"I didn't say she'd want to do it. I said she wouldn't be able to help herself."
From the Paperback edition.