A teenager investigates a friend’s murder and learns much more than she bargained for.
McHugh’s debut interweaves two parallel stories, set almost two decades apart. We begin with Lucy, who relates that the dismembered body of her school friend Cheri, a mentally disabled 18-year-old who had been missing a year, was found near a creek outside the remote town of Henbane, in the Missouri Ozarks. Approximately 18 years earlier, Lila, a young Iowa woman who has just aged out of foster care, is placed by an agency in a job with Crete Dane, who owns Dane’s, a restaurant/general store, and a lot of other Henbane real estate. Lila’s job is supposed to include room and board, but the room is a stifling one in Crete’s garage, the food is intermittent, and Crete withholds most of her pay. Back in the present, Lucy, 17, has just taken a summer job with her uncle Crete. Mostly, her duties involve waitressing at Dane’s, but when she and another teenager, Daniel, are assigned to clean out a remote trailer in the woods, the teens notice obvious signs of a struggle and something else: a necklace that Lucy had given Cheri. This discovery sends Lucy and Daniel on a quest to find Cheri’s killer. Meanwhile, in the past, Lila, whose beauty both enthralls and disturbs Henbane’s downtrodden townsfolk, learns the real nature of her job: Crete plans to force her into prostitution. Enraged that she prefers his brother Carl, Crete rapes Lila and inflicts a festering bite, then holds Lila captive in her garage room until Carl intervenes, eventually leading to an intersection of past and present. McHugh’s evocation of the rugged setting and local speech patterns starkly reveals the menace lurking beneath Henbane’s folksy facade. However, a misguided authorial attempt to find the good in Crete only muddies the novel’s moral waters, since nothing can mitigate or redeem the evil he inflicts.
An accomplished literary thriller.