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A Flicker in the Dark


A Flicker in the Dark

Stacy Willingham's debut novel, A FLICKER IN THE DARK, is a gripping page-turner perfect for fans of Gillian Flynn and Carola Lovering.

In the summer of 1999, Chloe Davis was 12 years old. Her life, though confined to her small, backwoods Louisiana town, was more or less a happy one: her mother and father were present and doting, and when they couldn’t be with her, her popular older brother, Cooper, filled in the gaps. But despite her childhood years of playing in the woods behind her home --- building fairy houses out of mossy sticks, exploring hidden caves and chasing her brother around --- Chloe recalls that the woods around her home took on a nightmarish quality. The once comforting canopy of forest trees felt smothering, while the once potential-filled darkness became a fear of the unknown. Monsters that should have remained under the bed and in her nightmares began to occupy hidden corners of her waking world.

"A FLICKER IN THE DARK is an ambitious first novel, but Stacy Willingham exerts masterful control over each of her plots and character arcs. This is a smart, cleverly constructed book that is as full of emotional insight as it is page-turning twists and turns."

By the end of that fateful summer, it was clear where the real monsters lived. Six teenage girls went missing, and in only a few short months, her father was arrested for their murders and labeled a serial killer. In the aftermath, Chloe’s family fractured --- her mother left mentally incapable after a suicide attempt, and Cooper left a shell of his former self, quiet and introspective where he was once outgoing and friendly. Years later, Chloe has followed a nearly textbook path to becoming a psychologist, unpacking the mysteries of the human mind in ways that she couldn’t as a child. Now she is engaged to a caring, generous man named Daniel and runs her own private practice where she treats adults and teenage girls alike. As a practitioner, she takes comfort in the clichés of her profession: how humans work in patterns, acting and reacting in similar ways.

With the 20-year anniversary of her father’s summer of mayhem closing in, Chloe isn’t too surprised when a reporter for the New York Times reaches out to speak with her. At first, she has no trouble telling him off, but when she learns that he also visited her ailing mother at the nursing home, she is forced to connect with him to set the record straight. In between these events, two teenage girls go missing from Chloe’s new town, Baton Rouge, and both have eerie connections to her: one looks familiar, though she cannot place her, while the other was one of her patients. Even worse, Chloe was the last one to see her alive.

It’s easy to see the parallels between this summer and the summer of 1999. But why has the killer, whoever it may be, waited until now to act? Is Baton Rouge facing a copycat killer, determined to finish what her father started years ago? Or is the truth much closer to home, a person harmed by Chloe’s father’s murderous reign who now wants to incite the same violence on his family? For years, Chloe and her mother and brother have been victim-shamed by their neighbors and the media, and it has taken a long time to get to where she is now --- happily engaged and successfully self-employed. In order to keep the life she has fought so hard to maintain, Chloe will have to revisit the summer of her father’s arrest and look for clues that can help her track down the killer wreaking havoc on her life today.

A FLICKER IN THE DARK is immediately gripping. It’s no secret that serial killers are extremely popular in suspense fiction, but Willingham takes her novel a step further by writing from the perspective of the family of a killer, the people left to deal with the aftermath of a killer’s spree, often to traumatizing and life-altering consequences. Through Chloe, and even Cooper, Willingham explores the complex, layered responses to psychological trauma, particularly where PTSD plays a role. Chloe takes the path of personal achievement by arming herself with knowledge of psychology. Through her studies, she all but guarantees that she will not be caught unawares again; if she is, she’ll have the tools to emerge mostly unharmed. Cooper, on the other hand, retreats into himself, dawdling through unsuccessful relationships and maintaining a protective, but perhaps overcompensating, eye on his younger sister.

Together, the two are codependent, but when we meet them, Chloe starts to move on and find happiness with Daniel. These interpersonal relationships play out against the backdrop of murder and tragic anniversaries to make for an endlessly compelling and truly clever plot. Add to that some deeply atmospheric prose and more than one believable red herring, and you have something fresh, original and unputdownable.

A FLICKER IN THE DARK is an ambitious first novel, but Stacy Willingham exerts masterful control over each of her plots and character arcs. This is a smart, cleverly constructed book that is as full of emotional insight as it is page-turning twists and turns. I truly cannot remember the last time I was this excited over a new voice in suspense fiction (perhaps Ashley Audrain's THE PUSH comes close). Although Willingham will bring to mind voices like Gillian Flynn and Kaira Rouda, her compelling heroine, taut, controlled storytelling and ability to throw readers off track are all her own.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 14, 2022

A Flicker in the Dark
by Stacy Willingham