For true crime fans who prefer to read about it in fiction form, there’s The Family Plot by Megan Collins — a thriller about a family of true-crime aficionados. What happens when family pushes everyone they know out of the way for their passion? Some would call that “obsession.” You’re invited over for dinner at eight. Proceed with caution, though, this is a compulsive read.
“Umbrella Academy meets Tana French. Dark, claustrophobic, and beautifully written.” —Andrea Bartz, author of We Were Never Here
From the author of The Winter Sister and Behind the Red Door, a family obsessed with true crime gathers to bury their patriarch—only to find another body already in his grave.
At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse is haunted by her upbringing. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she is unable to move beyond the disappearance of her twin brother, Andy, when they were sixteen.
After several years away and following her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house, where the family makes a gruesome discovery: buried in their father’s plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.
Dahlia is quick to blame Andy’s murder on the serial killer who terrorized the island for decades, while the rest of her family reacts to the revelation in unsettling ways. Her brother, Charlie, pours his energy into creating a family memorial museum, highlighting their research into the lives of famous murder victims; her sister, Tate, forges ahead with her popular dioramas portraying crime scenes; and their mother affects a cheerfully domestic facade, becoming unrecognizable as the woman who performed murder reenactments for her children. As Dahlia grapples with her own grief and horror, she realizes that her eccentric family, and the mansion itself, may hold the answers to what happened to her twin.
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Chapter One one
My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old, I assumed a knife would one day carve me up. My namesake was part of me, my future doomed by her violent death. That meant my oldest brother, Charlie, who had escaped the Lindbergh baby’s fate by living past age two, would still be abducted someday. My sister, Tate, would follow in her own namesake’s footsteps, become a movie star, then become a body in a pool of blood. And my twin brother, Andy, named for Lizzie Borden’s father—I was sure his head was destined for the ax.
It didn’t take me long to shed that belief, to understand that our names were just one of the many ways we honored victims of murder. But even after I stopped expecting us all to be killed, Andy insisted our family was “unnatural,” that the way we were raised wasn’t right.
I still don’t know where he got that idea; back then, the life we lived in our drafty, secluded mansion was the only kind of life we knew.
Now, I’m standing in front of it, the home he ran away from on our sixteenth birthday—two years before we were scheduled to get our inheritance (“Leaving Money,” as Charlie called it), and three before I left myself, having waited there, certain my twin would return, for as long as I could. I used to sit at the bottom of the stairs, gaze pinned to the door, hoping he’d walk through it again, tell me all my missing him was for nothing.
I was the only one who missed him. Mom read his note—The only way out is to never come back—and swallowed hard. “Your brother’s chosen his own path,” she said, swiping at her tears as if that was the end of it. Dad stomped around the house for a while, grumbling about the hunting trip Andy had skipped out on. “He’s a coward, that twin of yours,” Dad told me, as if Andy belonged to me alone. And then there was Charlie and Tate, who were visiting when we found the note. They’d come all this way for our sixteenth birthday, but they left without helping me look for him, Charlie claiming he had an audition, Tate trailing after him like always. Which left just me, alone in my anguish for years after that, lighting the candles with Mom and Dad, saying the Honoring prayer that I’ve since learned they created themselves.
Dad died the other day. That’s why I’ve come back. And I’m hoping this will be the thing that brings Andy back, too. Maybe he’s already inside, listening for my footsteps. Maybe I can stop my internet searches. Every week, I look for my brother on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Greta, who runs the café beneath my tiny apartment, has taught me all the tricks on social media, but still, my searches come back each time with nothing.
Today, I took the long way up from the ferry, watching the rocky shore recede below me as I climbed higher toward the center of Blackburn Island, where our house looms stony and colorless in front of the woods. For minutes now, I’ve been staring at those skeletal trees, remembering how Andy used to whack at them, how he’d pick up his ax whenever something flared inside him—and how almost anything could set him off: Dad quizzing him about hunting rifles; Mom teaching us about Ted Bundy’s victims; Tate sketching her namesake, Sharon. For all the hours Andy and I spent locked to each other’s hips—hiding in the credenza to jump out at Mom; distracting our groundskeeper with leaf pile forts—I never understood why he’d spring out of the house sometimes and pick up the ax that leaned against the shed. And when he told me, over and over, that our family was unnatural, that we needed the outside world, needed to trust people beyond each other, I didn’t understand that, either.
The November wind is icy on the back of my neck, pushing me closer to the front door. Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home.
It’s been seven years since I last stepped foot on this porch, even though when I left at nineteen I didn’t go far. My apartment on the mainland is a quarter mile from the ferry, easy access should Andy ever return, but when I first moved there, Greta acted like I was from a distant, mythical place. I can’t believe you grew up on Blackburn Island, she said. I’m obsessed with the Blackburn Killer. I have every article that’s ever mentioned him, and I spend hours a day on message boards, discussing all the theories. Oh my god, did you know any of the victims?
I could recite their names in my sleep. Not just the victims of our island’s serial killer, who murdered seven women over two decades and was never caught, but the ones from quiet neighborhoods, the ones on city streets. We honored them each year on the anniversaries of their deaths. We uttered their names as we stood in a circle, lighting each other’s slim white candles. Then we whispered the prayer—we can’t restore your life, but we strive to restore your memory with this breath—before blowing out the flames. When I told Greta I didn’t know the victims personally, but that they were part of our Honoring calendar, her forehead wrinkled with confusion, and I wondered for the first time if Andy had been right, that there was something unnatural about us.
But is he here now, sitting on the stairs, watching the door from inside as I force myself to turn its knob and finally push it open?
I blink until my eyes adjust. The light outside was dazzling and real, but in here it’s dimmer than dusk. The foyer, I see now, is vacant and cavernous; the staircase holds nobody up. The chandelier sways a little, as if something has nudged it, and I have to focus on breathing until the pang of being wrong subsides.
“Look who finally showed up. Tate and I have been here since yesterday.”
I turn toward Charlie’s voice. Through the wide archway to the right, I see him sitting in the living room, in curtained, lampless dark. I can just make out the glass of amber liquid in his hand. He sips it now, barely ten a.m., before he stands and approaches, burgundy-sweatered and lanky as ever.
“What, you’re not a hugger?” he asks with a wink.
He embraces me before I can answer. When he lets go, he takes my bag off my shoulder and slings it over his own, the weight of it tipping him farther than his typical sideways slouch.
“You look good, Dolls,” he says. “What’s it been—nine years?”
I blink at him like he’s another dark room I have to get used to. How can he not know it’s been ten years, four months, and three days since we last saw each other? It’s easy to remember. You just take the time it’s been since we last saw Andy and subtract one day. I suppose, though, that Charlie’s tried to see me before now. He’s sent me texts over the years, inviting me to his shows—the off-Broadway ones and the really off-Broadway ones—but I’ve never gone. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stomach it, watching him pretend to be somebody else. To me, he’ll always be the man who read Andy’s note—The only way out is to never come back—and returned right away to New York. Greta likes to remind me that Charlie was twenty-six at the time, someone with a life already separate from us, but what she doesn’t get is that when I talk about Charlie, or Tate, or my parents, I’m not looking for perspective; I’m looking for her to agree that all of them failed my twin.
Now, I tell Charlie exactly how long it’s been, and he eyes me strangely before sipping his drink again.
“Where’s everyone else?” I ask.
“Tate’s playing dutiful daughter to the grieving widow upstairs. And Dad—well, he’s in the morgue still, waiting for his Honoring tomorrow.”
I skip past the image of our father, cold in a drawer somewhere. “Is that really what we’re calling it?” I ask. “An Honoring?”
Charlie’s mouth tilts in amusement. “What else would we call it?”
I shrug. “Dad wasn’t murdered. It doesn’t seem like the Honoring rules would apply.”
“Well.” He leans in conspiratorially, bourbon on his breath. “The way I hear it, Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. Took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him facedown in his venison stew.” He demonstrates by pitching his head toward the mouth of his glass. “Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic, really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost... intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”
He’s smirking. And his words are wobbly. Tate’s warned me about this, through her frequent emails I rarely return. She’s said that Charlie’s a disturbing drunk.
“That’s quite a welcome,” I tell him. “Thanks.”
He shrugs like it’s no problem. Like it isn’t appalling, describing our father’s death that way. But I don’t feel it like the kick in the gut I know I should. I didn’t feel much of anything when I learned of Dad’s heart attack. Just sort of an: Oh. Okay. I was at the café, looking for traces of Andy in Detroit (I’ve been working my way through all the major cities again), and Greta overheard me on the phone. She brought me hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and said she was so, so sorry, god, that’s awful, Dahlia. But actually, the news of Dad’s death was, to me, just news. An inevitable update on the time line of my life.
I get why Charlie’s acting out, why he’s smirky and buzzed. It’s a front, I’m sure, for the pain roiling inside him. Charlie actually knew Dad, in ways that I—and I suspect Tate—never did. Dad paid attention to Charlie the same way he paid attention to Andy. All those shooting lessons over the years, those whispered conversations while scoping the woods for the flick of a tail. I don’t know what to do with girls, Dad confessed once, when I asked why it was only boys who got to go on hunting trips. It’s not that I wanted to hunt; I just hated the idea of Andy experiencing something without me. But hearing Dad admit that was a relief. I didn’t know what to do with him, either, this man with few words and fewer smiles; with no involvement in our education, not even to watch the murder documentaries Mom showed us; with nothing more than nods of acknowledgment whenever he passed me, as if I were an employee like our groundskeeper, Fritz. I got permission, then, to love Dad less. To not even worry about loving him at all. Which was fine with me. It left more space for Andy.
“Come on,” Charlie says. He sets his glass on the credenza, gestures with his chin toward the staircase. “Mom’s been waiting for you.”
As I follow him up, I glance behind me, still always checking for Andy.
“Don’t be rude, Dahlia, say hi to Grandma and Grandpa,” Charlie says, throwing me another smirk over his shoulder. And that’s fine, if he needs to make this all a joke, but the photos of Mom’s parents that line the staircase wall are anything but funny. I know the faces in those frames aren’t ghosts—ghosts don’t have weddings, don’t smoke cigarettes, don’t kiss with smiling lips—but they started this, didn’t they? Our haunted childhoods. Our haunted lives. And maybe this is what Andy meant when he said our family was unnatural. Because Mom crowded our walls with her murdered parents.
It is unusual, our origin story: Mom moved here at twenty-one, to her family’s summer house, immediately after home invaders killed her parents at their Connecticut estate; she married Daniel Lighthouse, an orphan himself, who—for someone who didn’t know what to do with girls—captivated Mom right away; and Dad indulged her eccentricities, encouraged them even, and did not protest as she turned the mansion into something like a mausoleum.
Before we reach the top of the stairs, I hear footsteps on the landing, and then a gasp. It’s Tate, pushing Charlie to the side, rushing to meet me.
“Dahlia!” she says. “What the hell? You’re all grown-up!”
She laughs like I’m playing a joke on her, like I’ll unzip my skin and emerge as the girl I was the last time she saw me. Then she pulls me into a hug so fierce I almost lose my footing.
“Careful, Tate,” Charlie says. “Let’s not kill our sister, shall we? Mom hardly has any room left in her shrine.” He smiles at our grandparents on the wall, as if they’re in on the joke.
It’s weird, though—these hugs they’ve both given me, as if we Lighthouse children were a happy foursome of siblings, not divided into pairs by the difference in our ages, by the fact that Andy and I could read each other’s minds, and that Tate just worshiped Charlie. She ignores him now, stepping back to examine me again, and she’s as striking as ever, wavy blond hair piled on top of her head, wayward curls framing her face. She’s wearing a turquoise sweater over a pair of magenta jeans, and she’s the first bright thing I’ve seen since entering this house. That’s part of her “brand” now, brightness. When she photographs herself with her dioramas on Instagram, she’s always in pink or aqua or yellow. It’s contradictory to her depictions of the Blackburn Killer’s crime scenes—the dark rocky shores, the obsidian water, those dead women, who, even in their miniature ice-blue dresses, look like shadows flung upon the rocks—but it works somehow.
I wonder if Andy is one of Tate’s fifty-seven thousand followers. I wonder if he ever scrolls through the feed of @die_orama, feeling exposed by our sister’s art.
The New York Post profiled her last year, and Greta taped those pages to the café wall, insisting I was related to “true-crime royalty.” When I read the article, I held my breath, unsure how much Tate had shared with the Post about our way of life. Greta’s the only one I’ve told about the possibly “unnatural” things from our childhood, details she’s both devoured and savored: the library in the back hall, which we dubbed “the victim room,” its bookshelves crowded with newspapers reporting on murders; Mom’s homeschooling curriculum that required us to write our own “murder reports,” in which we presented our theories of unsolved cases in neat five-paragraph essays. (This detail is Greta’s favorite; You were just like me, she says, a citizen detective! At first, I thought she invented that term, until she told me about the network of people online who lose hours each day investigating cases.)
The article didn’t mention murder reports, but Tate explained that she felt a kinship with the Blackburn Killer’s victims, given that he’d been active on the island while she lived there. More than that, she believed that by re-creating the bodies, right down to the rope marks on the women’s necks, the B branded on their ankles, she was returning the focus to the seven people whose lives were cut short, instead of the intrigue of “whatever sick fuck” did the cutting.
In her Instagram posts, Tate never writes how we grew up honoring those seven women on the anniversaries of their deaths, accumulating dates as the years went by, as the killer kept strangling, kept branding, kept dressing his victims in identical ice-blue gowns, and dumping their bodies in shallow water. But whenever I see Tate’s dioramas—those intricate, lifelike, bite-size crime scenes—I can’t help but feel like she’s sharing family secrets.
“You’re so grown-up,” Tate tells me again. She turns so she appears in profile and tilts her chin up. “And what about me? How do I look? How’s”—she pauses to give a mock grimace—“thirty-five treating me?”
“You look great,” I say. But she knows that. In the selfies she posts between dioramas, her followers shower her with praise: Girl, you’re gorgeous; I’d kill for your hair. They love her style, her dioramas, her captions about each victim—and they love Blackburn, too. The Post profile, which quoted people who’d learned of Blackburn through @die_orama, explained that Tate has essentially transformed it into a tourist destination, that the shores where all those women were found are now a draw, not a deterrent. “It’s exhilarating,” one person said, “standing on land where a real serial killer dumped his bodies.”
It’s been a decade since the Blackburn Killer last struck, but people on the island still dead bolt their doors—a precaution we never needed. It seemed that no one, not even a serial killer, wanted to slip inside our house. “Murder Mansion,” the islanders called it.
“Dahlia. You came.”
It’s Mom at the top of the stairs this time.
“Of course I came,” I say.
She’s dressed the same as always—sweats and slippers—but she’s paler than I’ve ever seen her, skin like a crumpled piece of paper someone’s tried to smooth back out.
Mom wraps me in her arms, leaning down to rest her chin on my shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she says on a sigh.
Charlie, above us, fidgets with the strap of my bag. “Yes, what a lovely family reunion,” he says. “Right where everyone hoped it would take place: on the stairs.”
Tate smacks his arm. Mom exhales into my neck, breath heavy with loss. As she hugs me tighter, I feel how potently she’s missing Dad. She was like a moth with him, drawn to a light I could never see. When he entered a room, her eyes flew to his face; when he recounted a recent hunting trip, she leaned forward, fluttery with anticipation. He didn’t have to say much—usually didn’t—and maybe it’s because he said so little that she hung on every word, grateful and stunned that he’d spoken to her at all.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her.
“About what?” she asks.
“Global warming?” Charlie can’t help but quip. “The wage gap? All your fault, Dolls.”
Tate smacks him again.
“About Dad,” I say.
Mom pulls back to put her hands on either side of my face. Her eyes are puffy and red, cupped by dark pouches. “Don’t be sorry about Dad, he didn’t suffer at all. It was a quick, natural death. Shocking, and horrible, but the best there is in the end.” She strokes my cheek. “Now, if you’re going to be sorry about anything...”
“Oh, Mom, not again,” Tate says.
“What?” I ask.
“She’s been guilt-tripping us,” Charlie says.
“No.” Mom shakes her head. “No guilt trip.”
“She’s mad,” he continues, “that we’ve stayed away for so long.”
“I’m not mad,” Mom insists. “I’ve just missed you, that’s all.”
Tate puts her arm around Mom’s shoulder. “Do I or do I not call you three times a week?” she asks. “And do I or do I not send you all the treats you can only get in Manhattan? You said you loved those chocolates from Moretti’s.”
“I did love those chocolates,” Mom agrees. “I just love you all more.”
“Aw. That’s sweet,” Charlie says, but there’s something tart in his tone. “But like we told you yesterday, which I’m sure Dahlia would agree with—” He looks at me meaningfully, urging me to mimic his nod. “We’ve had to make our way. And that requires distance. Time. I’ve been gone as long as I lived here, and I’m still adjusting to the world.”
Mom swivels to face Charlie, her jaw quivering. “I always meant,” she says, “to prepare you for that. For the outside world. That’s what everything was for.”
She extends her arm toward a photo on the wall, one where her parents laugh at some party, each with a cigarette between their fingers, and she caresses the frame slowly. It’s a haunted gesture, as if she’s trying to touch the past, trying to save her parents from their future.
“What Charlie means,” Tate says, cutting him a glance, “is just—there’s so much life out there, you know? I had no idea how much! The world is huge with it.”
Mom’s fingers drop from the frame. Her shoulders slump.
“And in a way,” Tate adds, squeezing Mom closer, “I appreciate it more, I think, because of everything you taught us. Don’t you agree, Dahlia?”
Tate’s eyes lock onto mine, and they’re so blue, so hypnotic, that I find myself nodding. But then I remember Mom’s response to Andy’s runaway note—Your brother’s chosen his own path—and I don’t know why I’m bothering to comfort her. She’s never cared before if we stayed away, and I still haven’t forgiven her for that, for giving Andy up so easily.
The fact is, we all had our reasons for never coming back. Charlie claimed he needed to stay close to the city, be ready at the drop of a hat for whatever new role might open up. And because Charlie didn’t return to Blackburn, Tate didn’t either. Codependent, Greta tsked when I told her how they’ve lived together in the same Manhattan walk-up ever since they both got their inheritance. And me, I lasted only three years in the house without Andy, done with dodging the shadows that piled up like dust bunnies in every corner. But what about him? He left without telling me why, without even saying goodbye, and I’ve had to live all these years in the not knowing, which is a lonely, comfortless place.
I know he was troubled by things I wasn’t. I know he took his ax to the trees in the woods—not to cut them down, but to wound them, scar them, to make them carry something on their bark he couldn’t hold inside him anymore. I know his emotions ran hot and hard; he was quick to anger, frustration. But what was it that made him run? I don’t believe—I’ve never believed—that our “unnatural” life was enough of a reason. I haven’t forgiven our family for letting him go, and I haven’t forgiven him, either, for going.
“I’m just glad you’re here now,” Mom says to us. “The circumstances are dreadful, of course, but I’m happy to have all my children back home.”
Did she really just say all?
But I’m cut off by a shout bursting through the back door.
“Mrs. Lighthouse! Mrs. Lighthouse!”
The urgency in Fritz’s voice prickles the hair on the back of my neck.
He limps into the foyer, quick as a man nearing eighty can. His right leg—the bad one—drags a little, and his long, milky hair is streaked with dirt.
Mom rushes down the stairs to meet him. “What is it?” she asks.
Charlie, Tate, and I clomp down as well, and when Fritz spots me, he does a double take. “You came,” he says, breathy from running, from shouting.
“Of course I came,” I say, for the second time. “What’s going on?”
“It’s... Outside, I...”
He trails off, prompting Charlie to roll his eyes. “What is it? Is everything o-kay?” And I remember this now—how Charlie used to speak to Fritz as if he were dumb.
“No. N-n-no,” Fritz stammers, his focus still on Mom. “I was in the woods out back, digging up Mr. Lighthouse’s plot, and—”
“We’re burying him here?” Charlie asks Mom.
“Of course. They’ll transport him when we’re ready.”
“But— Isn’t that a bit... ghoulish?” Charlie asks. And it’s a strange question, given our lives.
Mom’s shoulders roll back as if he’s offended her. “Not at all. That’s where my parents are buried. It’s the family plot. We put in stones for your father and me.”
“Um, guys?” Tate says. She gestures to Fritz, whose eyes are wide, seemingly all pupil.
“I don’t know what...” our groundskeeper starts. “Or-or how, but somebody’s already...”
“Already what? Spit it out!” Charlie booms, plucking his bourbon off the credenza.
Fritz swallows then, throat bobbing in his neck like all those actors in the crime scene reenactments we saw, their fear looking hard and bulbous inside them. It makes me swallow, too, makes me rub at the hair still rising on the back of my neck. But when Fritz speaks again, his voice doesn’t waver.
“Somebody’s already buried in Mr. Lighthouse’s plot. And I think—” Fritz shifts his gaze to me. “I think it’s Andy.”