Steeped in geeky pleasures like gaming and horror and drenched in ’80s nostalgia, Netflix’s Stranger Things seems rather unlikely as a cultural phenomenon. But as the next expansive multimedia franchise? Decidedly less so: for who better enjoys delving into backstories and side-quests than us geeks?
And that’s exactly what’s happening in a new series of tie-in novels investigating moments and characters that the show doesn’t have time to address. The latest is Adam Christopher’s Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town, a suspenseful and compelling plunge into Police Chief Jim Hopper’s backstory, exploring his days as a homicide detective. A frame story set in 1984 finds Jim and his erstwhile adopted daughter Eleven hanging out in the cabin after spending their first Christmas together. Eleven pulls an old cardboard box marked “New York” out of Hopper’s basement and asks some incisive questions about his past. For Hopper, the box and the questions trigger a dark trip down memory lane, and, somewhat reluctantly at first, he tells Eleven the story of the major case he worked as a newly minted homicide detective with the New York City police department in 1977. Back then, Hopper was a happily married family man with a wife and daughter, pursuing a career with the force after completing two tours of duty in Vietnam.
Hopper and his brand new partner, detective Rosario Delgado, are tasked with investigating a series of brutal murders. At every crime scene, the killer has left behind a mysterious flashcard. Digging deeper into the case, Hopper and Delgado unearth connections to a shadowy organization with nefarious plans for New York City—but just as they seem to be getting closer to the truth, a group of federal agents swoop in and brusquely order them off to stand down, confiscating the evidence they’ve already collected.
Not surprisingly, this does not sit well with either Hopper or Delgado, and they decide to disobey orders and continue their investigation, risking their careers in the process. The deeper they dig, the murkier—and stranger—the case seems. All leads seem to point at an elusive character calling himself “Saint John,” a man with an uncanny ability to inspire awe, loyalty, and fear in his numerous followers. By the time Hopper realizes they might be in over their heads, things have already gone too far. He’s forced to go undercover, risking his reputation and his life in order to unravel the mystery behind the murders.
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As a crime thriller, Darkness on the Edge of Town is taut and gripping. As a Stranger Things tie-in, it’s also a great character study of Jim Hopper. Christopher does an excellent job of portraying the man—something of a morose sad sack by the mid-’80s era of the show—at a moment in time when the character might have been the most content with his life. He’s left Vietnam behind, he’s respected at work (even if his co-workers poke fun at his small-town origins and penchant for plaid shirts), and his family life is harmonious. That happiness stands in stark contrast to the violence and brutality he encounters on the job, and in both 1977 and 1984, Hopper reflects on his choice of a career that takes him down some very dark paths.
The supporting cast adds depth and nuance to the story, especially Hopper’s sharply dressed and whip-smart partner Rosario Delgado. The novel’s best scenes depict Delgado and Hopper working on the case—there’s a welcoming feeling of mutual respect and camaraderie between them that elevates the investigative sections. (In one of the memorable and lighthearted moments, one of their colleagues refers to them as “Sonny and Cher,” leading to a hilarious argument over which one of them is which.)
Much as the show is steeped in a 1980s milieu, the novel captures the spirit of 1977 in all its bell-bottomed, synthetic-suited glory, seasoned with the right music, movies, and background news. But beyond the frilly shirts and platform shoes, there is a sense of real darkness looming at the edges of every facet of the narrative, which unfolds at a time when the Son of Sam investigation was casting a shadow over the city and the country. The New York streets and neighborhoods Hopper navigates are rundown and dangerous; a pervading sense of the decay gnawing at the edges of society runs through the book like a shiver.
The darkness extends to Jim’s own life: his memories of the war seem like distant shadows at the beginning of the book, but are dredged up to the surface as the case uncovers a connection to other veterans. There seems to be a supernatural darkness at work too, making its ominous presence felt at early on in a scene involving a magician at a kids’ party Hopper and his wife attend with their daughter. Hopper dismisses it as a mere party trick, but the event comes back to haunt him again and again during investigation.
Adding to the tension is the question of who Jim can really trust in a case where everyone–from informants, to witnesses, to the interfering federal agents–seem to have a hidden agenda. When Hopper goes undercover, things get even murkier—reflected in the literal blackout that plunges the city into darkness near the novel’s climax.
Though the narrative is, in a sense, far removed from the Upside Down mysteries that drive the TV series, for fans of Stranger Things, Christopher’s book is worthwhile for its vivid insights into the character of Jim Hopper. Fans of the series might also appreciate (like I did) that the book echoes some of the its recurring and defining themes: that innocent people are often used and abused by those in power to serve wicked ends, and that you often need to rely on the faith and loyalty of your friends and family to bring you back from the brink.
Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town is available now in an exclusive B&N edition featuring a pull-out poster.