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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.