In Barnes’ (And Still, She Wept, 2014, etc.) thriller, an FBI agent who has survived a harrowing experience with a serial killer finds another case in her hometown, where pageant contestants are being abducted.
FBI profiler Kayleen Archer’s last case nearly killed her. Serial murderer Richard Allan Estes, the man the feds were pursuing, left her alive but only after extensive torture and after killing herFBI partner and lover. Kayleen, on indefinite leave from the FBI and plagued by nightmares, takes refuge in Archdale, North Carolina, from which she fled 11 years ago, leaving behind her childhood friend and eventualboyfriend, Caleb Stone. Caleb, now the sheriff, wants Kayleen’s expertise with the case of 9-year-old Andie, who’d been found dead after disappearing from an illustrious 10-day beauty pageant. Kayleen quickly brings the investigation to a close, but another contestant is soon missing. This one, however, is different and seems to involve a killer who’s much more ruthlessly systematic and, to the horror of still-recovering Kayleen, reminiscent of Estes. At the same time, Kayleen suspects someone is watching her and may have been in her house, but her incessant drinking makes it impossible to know for sure. In some ways, the author’s protagonist resembles a world-weary detective; she chain-smokes and has become a full-fledged alcoholic, her breakfast often consisting of vodka and splashes of orange juice. But what makes Kayleen such an admirable character is that, however much she struggles, she endures. Her emotional scars render any reignited romance with Caleb, who still pines for her, a near impossibility, and her physical scars are brutally inescapable—she can actually feel her scars scratching her bed’s silk sheets. Barnes smartly implies that most of the torture Kayleen suffered was at the hands of Estes, though enough is relayed through dreams and flashbacks—e.g., hinting at the killer’s “tool bag of terrors”—that even the most seasoned reader might recoil. Beauty pageants aren’t portrayed in the best light: The girls’ parents don’t want the pageant shut down despite one murder and a possible second, and a girl who’s barely a teen being overtly sexualized during a performance makes Kayleen uncomfortable. The inevitable confrontation between the protagonist and the killer becomes a dramatic, suspenseful episode.
A substantial thriller and a profound story of a woman recovering from abuse: two threads that complement each other astonishingly well.