Darkness Peering

Darkness Peering

4.6 12
by Alice Blanchard

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Darkness Peering

The dead girl lay face up on the edge of the pond, a snake coiled in the muddy hollow of one arm. For Police Chief Nalen Storrow, it was a shocking reminder of the violence he thought he'd left behind when he moved his family to Flowering Dogwood, Maine. Then, Storrow's investigation leads to a chilling possibility...the murderer might be

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Darkness Peering

The dead girl lay face up on the edge of the pond, a snake coiled in the muddy hollow of one arm. For Police Chief Nalen Storrow, it was a shocking reminder of the violence he thought he'd left behind when he moved his family to Flowering Dogwood, Maine. Then, Storrow's investigation leads to a chilling possibility...the murderer might be his own son, Billy. Eighteen years later, a different cop is obsessed with the unsolved case—Rachel Storrow, Nalen's grown daughter. But no sooner does Rachel reopen the investigation than another young woman disappears. Once again Billy is a suspect—but not the only one in a town with long-buried secrets.  A cunning psychopath is moving undetected through Flowering Dogwood, taking Rachel on a relentless journey of suspicion, doubt, and bone-deep fear.  And nothing can prepare her—or the reader—for the staggering revelation that awaits.  

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] Knockout."
Entertainment Weekly

"A very impressive debut."
—Jonathan Kellerman

"Deeply scary"
The New York Times Book Review

"Gives Thomas Harris a run for his money."
The Denver Post

"Mesmerizing...an engrossing seamless mixture...the psychological thriller, the woman in jeopardy, the whodunit, the police procedural—And it does well by all of them."
Los Angeles Times

The Barnes & Noble Review
While many families have a black sheep or two, hopefully most will never be faced with the brutal situation that faces Rachel Starrow, the young cop lead in Alice Blanchard's well-crafted debut, Darkness Peering. Rachel's dilemma centers around an 18-year-old murder and the stacking evidence that her beloved brother may be leading the twisted life of a serial killer. The novel is set in a peaceful, wooded Maine community, and Blanchard skillfully weaves into it several aspects of a British-style mystery -- claustrophobic setting, a local killer, intense psychological drama, the feeling of isolation -- creating a mesmerizing, swiftly-paced police-procedural, which keeps the reader guessing, hoping, and constantly jumping at shadows.

Blanchard's novel opens in Flowering Dogwood, Maine, in 1980 with local police chief Nalen Starrow and his tiny band of detectives investigating the murder of Melissa D'Agostino, a 14-year-old who suffered from Down's syndrome and has been strangled to death. Violence in Flowering Dogwood is generally nonexistent, so the murder -- on the heels of the gruesome discovery of a score of decapitated cats -- has the town on edge. Although Starrow's son, Billy, and his unruly friends confess to killing the cats, they stand firm that they know nothing about the decapitations. Starrow, of course, has his doubts, and as he continues his investigation into Melissa D'Agostino's death, he becomes convinced that Billy is to blame for the young girl's demise.

The meat of Blanchard's novel is set 18 years later: Melissa D'Agostino's death is still officially unsolved, Billy is now a teaching aid at a local school for the blind, and Rachel, who was nine at the time of Melissa's murder, is now a deputy detective for the same police force her father used to head. Rachel, who is still haunted by the murder, decides to reopen the investigation. Her attempt to put to rest her D'Agostino-related demons comes to an abrupt halt when Billy's boss and good friend, Claire, disappears. With Claire's parents frantic and demanding swift action, Rachel -- along with boss and clandestine lover Jim McKissack (who happens to be a married man) -- begins her search. With the D'Agostino case weighing heavily on her mind, Rachel secretly fingers Billy as Claire's abductor, but shudders to act upon her suspicions. Could her loving brother really be capable of commiting such an unspeakable act?

In Darkness Peering, Blanchard excels on several levels. For one, her story is 100 percent plausible. The characters are real, with true-to-life fears and deficiencies. On more than one occasion, readers will find themselves asking how they might act if faced with a similar situation. In addition, Blanchard's use of setting is admirable. Like the eerie works of Minette Walters and Elizabeth George, Blanchard uses her chosen locale to superb effectiveness. And, as all great mysteries, Darkness Peering keeps you in the dark, completely enthralled, and, on more than one occasion, absolutely horrified. It's a riveting, heartfelt human drama -- a genuine police-procedural gem from this first-time novelist.

-- Andrew LeCount

The Denver Post
A finely plotted mystery-thriller..[with a] final twist that hits like a punch in the gut.
Ridley Pearson
A dark, richly-peopled novel that grips the reader from start to finish.
USA Today
New York Times Book Review
Dark artistry...piercing characterizations...Alice Blanchard's deeply scary first novel, Darkness Peering is not your off-the-rack genre thriller...the emotional content of the story outweighs the horror of events, inviting reflection.
Romantic Times
Darkness Peering is a spectacularly chilling debut by a hot new voice in dark suspense. Ms. Blanchard weaves an unrelentingly twisted and haunted tale of treachery and murder.
Wall Street Journal
Impressive and highly effective...creepily atmospheric story of dreadful thoughts and evil deeds...Ms. Blanchard, winner of the 1996 Katherine Anne Porter Prize writes uncommonly well.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Switching genres with ease, short story writer Blanchard, who won the 1996 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for her collection The Stuntman's Daughter, offers an accomplished suspense novel. Flowering Dogwood, Maine, is a picturesque New England town, a seemingly safe place where people can still leave their doors unlocked. And so the community is shocked when Melissa D'Agostino, a mentally challenged teenager, is strangled on her way home from school. Chief of Police Nalen Storrow, a father of two, is particularly distressed by the killing—even more so as he begins to suspect the killer may be someone he knows. Overwhelmed by the mounting pressures of his personal and professional life, Storrow commits suicide, and the murder case is closed, unsolved. Fast forward 18 years: Rachel Storrow has followed in her father's footsteps and joined the police force. Her life seems lonely and work obsessed; her girlfriends have long since moved away; her relationship with her awkward older brother, Billy, is distant; and her on-again, off-again lover, the current chief of police, is a married father of three. When an offhand comment from a minister leads Rachel to glance at the old D'Agostino murder files, the discovery that her brother was nearly considered a suspect sends her into an emotional spiral and convinces her to reopen the case. But her investigation is complicated by the sudden disappearance of her brother's co-worker, Claire Castillo, with whom he had fallen in love. Torn between her loyalty to her family and her duty as a cop, Rachel unwittingly finds herself confronting the same issues that troubled her father. And the answers she will find are no less disturbing. Blanchard's prose is swift and cinematic as she accelerates the suspense, and the tightly wrought ending offers a gut-wrenching, ironic twist. Agent, Wendy Weil. Rights sold in Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the U.K.; movie rights to Propaganda Films. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The murder of a retarded girl in a small Maine town destroys the life of the police chief and remains unsolved for 18 years until the chief's daughter, Detective Rachel Storrow, decides to reopen the case. As she begins her investigation, Rachel learns that her brother may have been involved in the girl's death. When another violent crime occurs, Rachel must confront her unresolved feelings for her father, her suspicions about her brother, and the town's rising hysteria as the police remain unable to solve either case. This first novel by Blanchard, who won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for her story collection, The Stuntman's Daughter, is an intricately plotted mystery as well as an intriguing portrait of a young policewoman haunted by her family's past and torn between personal honor and professional duty. Highly recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/99.]--Karen Anderson, Superior Court Law Lib., Phoenix Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Mary Cannon
Strong writing sets this psychological suspense novel apart from the crowd.
Mystery Magazine
What makes the mystery truly haunting are Blanchard's deft portrait of a town. . . dead on characters and evocative style.
The San Diego Union Tribune
Blanchard's crystalline prose. . . is as chilling as the wintry Maine woods.
Los Angeles Times
An engrossing seamless mixture of. . . psychological thriller. . . whodunit, [and] police procedural.
The Orlando Sentinel
Blanchard makes her mystery debut with a veteran's aplomb.
The Plain Dealer
Taut, compelling, remarkably assured. . . Darkness Peering is written with grace and style. Evocative. . . and merciless.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of a prizewinning story collection (The Stuntman's Daughter, 1996) makes an equally impressive novelistic debut with a literary thriller, this about two murder investigations that take place 18 years apart in the fictional inland Maine town of Flowering Dogwood. In 1980, Police Chief Nalen Storrow, himself a recovering alcoholic and former abusive father, fails to identify the killer of a 14-year-old retarded girl, and—haunted by circumstantial evidence pointing to his own troubled teenager, Billy—sorrowfully takes his own life. Then, in 1998, Storrow's daughter Rachel, a police detective following virtually in her father's footsteps, hesitantly reopens the still unsolved case and almost immediately concludes that Nalen's suspicions were correct. And so Billy—a lifelong underachiever now employed as a teacher's aide at a local school for blind and handicapped children—must once again be regarded as a prime suspect. Blanchard's clever plot moves into even higher emotional gear when Billy's colleague and soulmate Claire Castillo is reported missing, then reappears savagely mutilated and soon to die in the hospital despite the frantic efforts of its chief surgeon (Claire's own father). Rachel Storrow's heroic efforts to find the link between these two crimes (and later ones cunningly linked to them) bring her into disillusioning closeness not only with the embattled Billy (a sharply observed and believably complex character) but also with a once-notorious teenaged hellion matured by grief and responsibility, a fugitive pair of young lovers, and the married police chief who is her longtime lover. All of all these elements are mixed expertly in an increasinglysuspenseful story enriched by crisp writing, vivid forensic detail, and strong characterizations—the whole flawed only minimally by echoes, most blatant in the violent climax, of Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs. A solid first performance: the work of a versatile writer whose easy mastery of the suspense genre suggests she's quite capable of continuing to surprise and entertain.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.86(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt

Police Chief Nalen Storrow found the dead girl lying faceup in a rust-colored runoff pond on the westernmost corner of Old Mo Heppenheimer's cow pasture. Her milky eyes were open to the morning sky, one hand suspended as if brushing away insects. The sun was shining down, warming tiny black tadpoles in the shallows at her feet. A king snake was coiled in the muddy hollow under one arm, and a daddy longlegs crawled across her extended fingers.

"Git." Nalen waved his hand and the king snake slithered into the duckweed. He followed its progress until it vanished, then realized he was biting the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood. He looked away for an instant, heart thudding dully in his chest. A dense forest abutted the pasture, balsam firs releasing their aromatic fragrance from sap blisters on their trunks, leafy ferns thriving along with golden saxifrage and wild iris at the forest's edge. The day was hot, the sun high, and the silence was so thick you'd've thought the sky didn't have any air in it.

Steeling himself, he rolled up his pant legs and waded into the shallow pond, mud sucking at his shoes. He probed the cadaver's scalp, neck, arms, chest and legs, careful not to shift her position before the photographs were taken. A foul smell lingered in the air above the body like smoke in a bar. He could find no entrance or exit wounds, no blunt injuries, no ligature marks, although he detected finger markings around the throat.

Livor mortis had set in, rendering the underside of her body a reddish purple due to the accumulation of blood in the small vessels. Her elbows were blanched, as were the backs of her legs due to compression of the vessels in this area. Rigor mortis was fully developed, pinning the time of death to between twelve and twenty-four hours. The girl's face appeared congested and cyanotic, with fine petechial hemorrhages on her eyelids and across the bridge of her nose. There were also contusions and fingernail abrasions on her neck near the larynx.

Nalen recognized the dead girl from her pictures: Melissa D'Agostino, age fourteen, missing since the previous afternoon. Shy, chubby, mentally retarded. Her left hand, fisted shut, rested on her belly. Her face with its characteristic Down's syndrome eyes, its triangular nose and protruding tongue, was pallid in the strong sunlight, and dark curls as thick as sausages clung to her forehead. She wore laced yellow sneakers and her pink shorts and short-sleeved polka-dot top were bunched up in back from being dragged a short distance.

Nalen took a step back and scanned the horizon, a mild breeze lifting his thinning brown hair. He'd been a Boston patrolman for fifteen years before moving his wife and kids to this sleepy community five years ago to become its chief of police. Flowering Dogwood, Maine. Population eighteen thousand. Nobody locked their doors here. This was a small town, and he was the top man in a small-town police department, and the sight of the dead girl shook him in ways he hadn't been shaken in quite some time.

Here, in this isolated stretch where Old Mo let his Holsteins and Guernseys graze, local teenagers hung out late at night, smoking pot and getting drunk. Across the street was a dead-end dirt road, a lover's lane, and further east was the Triangle, the town's poorest neighborhood, whose cramped streets of dilapidated houses grew weedlike around the industrial section where the old sawmill and ceramic plant were located. Flowering Dogwood had prospered in the early nineteenth century, becoming Maine's sixth-largest municipality. The town's boots and shoes were renowned for their craftsmanship, and the dense, compact, fine-grained wood of the flowering dogwood was unequaled for the making of shuttles for weaving. By the late 1800s, however, Flowering Dogwood's fortunes had begun to decline, and nowadays the town was known mostly for its historical import, its ceramics and handcrafted furniture.

But what really distinguished this little community from other tradition-steeped New England towns was its school for the blind. The sidewalks were wide for pedestrian traffic and the streetlights were outfitted with little alarms that whooped whenever the walk light went on. Seeing-eye dogs were bred and trained locally and the historical society had fought to preserve the eighteenth-century house belonging to the school's founder.

Turning his attention back to the scene, Nalen searched the area for footprints and found a partial in the mud. The toe print was unclear and didn't have any tread, making it virtually useless. Nearby rested a branch the perpetrator must've used to wipe away his other footprints. That was smart. Nalen felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

A siren whelped, and Lieutenant Jim McKissack's dusty '72 AMC Javelin pulled onto the field, bumping over furrows. McKissack slammed on the brakes and the car fishtailed, stopping just short of a barbed wire fence where cattle craning their necks toward the sweeter, taller grasses reared back. McKissack and Detective Hughie Boudreau got out and headed across the field toward Nalen, a study in contrasts.

Jim McKissack was tall and good-looking, a ladies' man with a gruff sort of charm, a meticulous dresser—everything Hughie Boudreau was not. Hughie was short and rumpled, fine-boned, almost girlish, with a mustache that looked penciled on. He had a head of prematurely graying hair and reminded Nalen of a kid on his first roller-coaster ride, eyes constantly roving. Hughie was married and considered himself a good Christian, whereas McKissack was the type of guy who'd sell his own grandmother to the cannibals if it would help him solve a case. The kind of cop who smoked a cigar and wore sunglasses at five o'clock in the morning.

"Criminy." Hughie froze a few yards away.

"Our missing person," Nalen said.

"Jesus Cockadoodle Christ." His eyes looked stapled open.

McKissack smirked. "Lemme adjust the hue, Boudreau. You're looking a little green."

"Watch out, there's a partial right in front of you," Nalen said, and Hughie spun around and vomited in the grass.

McKissack radiated vigor as he strode toward the runoff pond. Parting the black-root rushes and broad-leaved cattails, he stood studying the dead girl with the same kind of impatient intensity he brought to every case. "What d'you think, Chief?"

"Strangulation, would be my guess."

McKissack shook his head. "Petechiae could also be present for heart failure or severe vomiting."

"Yeah, but the signs of cyanosis are most striking on the neck. See those contusions and fingernail markings? He used more force than necessary to subdue the victim."

Hughie was making retching sounds like a door being torn off its hinges.

"Who the hell would strangle a retarded kid?"

"Some severely inadequate person," Nalen said softly, since the angrier he got, the gentler his voice grew. He stared at the victim's face. During manual strangulation, the perp commonly altered his grasp of the neck, resulting in intermittent compression of the veins and arteries with waves of blood coursing in and out of the head, accompanying peaks and valleys in blood pressure that resulted in the rupturing of blood vessels. The petechial hemorrhages on the victim's eyelids and over the bridge of her nose were due to ruptured capillaries.

McKissack quickly unlaced his expensive Italian shoes and left them like two footprints on the muddy bank. "You think we've got a pedophile on our hands?"

"I doubt it."

McKissack glanced up. "You don't think this was a sexual homicide?"

"Let's wait for the autopsy."

"Give me your best guess, Chief."

Nalen thought for a moment. "She was strangled in the field, then dragged down to the pond."

"No rape? No molestation?"

"Look at her clothes. Nothing's twisted up or unbuttoned or put on backwards."

"Still . . . I've got a hunch." McKissack lit a cigarette. "She was a very trusting person, according to her mother. She might've done a few things willingly . . . you know, not knowing any better."

"I doubt it," Nalen said.

McKissack picked up the muddy branch and turned it over. "He erased his own footprints?"

"Except for that partial there."

"I was hoping we'd find her alive." Hughie straightened up and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "My wife and I were on our knees last night..."

"Whatever floats your boat," McKissack said, and Hughie spun around, his face an ugly mottled color.

"We were praying, you ignoramus! You should try it sometime, McKissack, it just might do you some good."

"Yeah, well, it didn't do her any good, did it?" He glanced sharply at the corpse.

"Gentlemen." Nalen snapped open his notebook, fingers cramping white around his pen, and started ticking off points on his mental checklist: they'd have to write a description of the scene, make sketches, take pictures. He'd already formed an opinion. The medical examiner was due any minute now, and Nalen was anxious to confirm his suspicions. He figured the girl had been dead for at least fourteen hours, strangled to death by a pair of unforgiving hands. If they were lucky, they'd get fingernail scrapings.

He went to his squad car, opened the trunk and got out a roll of yellow police tape. With measured steps, he cordoned off the area, looping the tape around the swamp rose and cattails, making the perimeter as wide as possible. In the distance, people were already beginning to congregate by the side of the road, some of them crossing into the pasture.


"Yes, Chief?"

"Keep those rubbernecks back, would you?"

"Sure thing, Chief."

"Take a look at this," McKissack said as they bent over the body together. There was a contusion on the back of the girl's skull, and Nalen wondered how he'd missed it.

"The perp must've struck her from behind," McKissack conjectured, "then raped her. Then strangled her. Then dragged her down here and dumped her."

"Nothing's amiss with her clothes, McKissack. Why rape somebody, then rebutton their shorts?"

"I dunno. Smells like rape to me."

"Let's wait for the autopsy."

"I bet I'm right."

"This isn't about right or wrong." Nalen's head was throbbing, and every shining blade of grass seemed to reflect the full glare of the sun. He took off his hat, mopped his brow. McKissack wasn't a bad cop, just a little arrogant. He tried to macho it. He didn't want help, and because of that, he would fail. They'd argued more than once over procedure. Still, Nalen figured that, with the proper guidance, McKissack could turn out to be one of the best. In the meantime, he spent half his time at the scene playing mind games with McKissack, the other half playing nursemaid to Hughie, when all he wanted was to keep things rolling, keep his team moving, no time to contemplate the tragedy here. No time to acknowledge this was somebody's little girl.

Nalen stooped to pick up a cigarette butt. "Goddammit, McKissack. This yours?"

"Sorry, Chief."

"Now that's just irresponsible." He pocketed the butt and continued searching the perimeter, where he found a three-inch-long piece of red thread, a matchbook from Dale's Discount Hardware and over a dozen glass shards, beer-bottle green. He sealed these items in evidence bags, then knelt to examine the body again. Stuck to the bottom of the girl's right sneaker, wedged into the tread, was a small piece of yellow lined notepaper. He removed it gingerly and held it in his palm, letting it dry slightly before opening it. Torn haphazardly in the shape of Italy, it was approximately two inches by one inch. He slipped it into an evidence bag, then knelt to take a soil sample.

While he was scraping the mud off a rock, the image of the girl's broken body flashed through his mind, and his stomach lurched. A sharp pain gripped his skull. Nauseated, he rested his head between his knees and took deep, shuddering breaths.

"You okay, Chief?" McKissack took the evidence bags from him. "I'll finish up. Go catch your breath."

Grateful, Nalen raised his head to the light and sat for a while, lost in thought, as if he were waiting for a turkey sandwich.  A car horn blared, an oddly comical sound in the bright morning air, and the medical examiner's platinum Mercedes 280CE coupé came cata-humping across the field.

"That guy changes cars the way some people change underwear," McKissack muttered as Archie Fortuna got out and, with a ceremonious flourish, snapped on a pair of latex gloves. He had delicate hands for such a big man. Archie was all dancing belly—a balding, fortyish indoor enthusiast who barreled toward the scene with the kind of eagerness most people reserved for sex or steak dinners.

"Howdy doody, Chief." Archie's breath was infamous for its alleged ability to drop a Doberman at six paces. "Whaddaya got?"

"Looks like she was struck on the head and then strangled," Nalen said. "Possibly dragged from a car, although I think she was killed right here in this field."

Archie clapped his hands with professional zeal. "Let's have a look-see."

They bent over the corpse together, shoes sinking into the muck. Archie had a lover's touch. When he turned the girl's body over, a hundred tiny beads of dew rolled off her skin.

"Petechial hemorrhages," he said.


"Finger markings around the throat. Possible blow to the skull. See this reddish area? Look for a blunt instrument . . . a rock, maybe. You called this one, Chief." Archie grunted as he straightened up and squinted at the sun, dark eyes disappearing behind greasy folds of flesh. "Take any prints?"

"Couldn't. Skin's too wrinkled."

"Not to worry. I'll finish back at the lab."

Nalen tried not to think about the process Archie would use to obtain the girl's prints for identification purposes. He'd seen it done once before; Archie would peel off little ovals of skin, place the flaps over his own fingertips, and then, using an ink pad, press them to the blotter.

Archie let out a muffled belch. "Mongoloid, huh?"

"Down's syndrome, they call it."

"Makes you sick, doesn't it?" He raised the dead girl's fist and delicately pried her fingers apart, and to the astonishment of both of them, a tiny silver bell fell out.

"What the doohickey's this?" Archie held it to the light.

"Looks like a cat bell," Nalen said, and Archie dropped it into his palm, where it rolled to a stop with a little tinkling sound.

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What People are saying about this

Phillip Margolin
Darkness Peering is a creepy and intense thriller. Its superb twists shocked me more than once.
Jonathan Kellerman
A novel of uncommon complexity, grace, and power. A very impressive debut.
Michael Palmer
A frightening premise, fully developed characters, excellent pacing. Alice Blancard takes her place among the best suspense writers at work today.
Alan Dershowitz
In her gripping debut novel, Blanchard deftly folds the reader into a tautly orchestrated story that twists and turns with knife-edged precision toward a blood-curdling and shocking conclusion. Her characters are brimming with life, her writing is beautiful and her local color is splendid. Darkness Peering raises the suspense genre to a new level.

Meet the Author

Alice Blanchard won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction for her book of stories, The Stuntman's Daughter. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband.

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