Dark Rooms reminded me of a few other books I’ve read recently, ones I’ve begun to classify as millennial noir: stories of smart but damaged young women who set out to solve crimes. Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little, In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore are a few others I’d put into that category, along with Paula Hawkins’ mega-best-selling The Girl on the Train.
The biggest difference in Dark Rooms is that Grace, the narrator/protagonist, is still just a teenager; she’s recently graduated from the exclusive Connecticut prep school where both of her parents are on the faculty. Grace’s younger sister, Nica—strikingly beautiful and sexually adventurous—has just been murdered, and it looks like an open-and-shut case, as a misfit loner at the prep school committed suicide shortly thereafter and left an incriminating note. Soon, however, Grace has reason to believe that the real killer is still at large.
I never believed for a second that Grace was only 18; nothing about her voice seemed teenaged to me. As for Nica, she seemed to be 16 going on 36. Speaking of a teacher, Grace ponders, “Doesn’t he understand that [Nica’s friends] Jamie and Ruben and Maddie—Nica, too, when she was alive—don’t respond well to kindness? That they see it as weakness, something to be made fun of or exploited? It took me a while but I finally learned that lesson. Why hasn’t he?… They like it best if you treat them the way they treat each other: dryly, derisively, cuttingly. That’s how they know you’re one of them.”
The most intriguing aspect of Dark Rooms is the relationship between Nica and her mother, who is a Sally Mann-type photographer on the verge of art-world stardom thanks to her excruciatingly intimate photos of her daughter. (Grace assures us that she did not have Nica’s gift for posing.) Other than that, the book is the usual stew of dark family secrets and rich people with murky pasts. I won’t spoil the most Shocking Twist, but weirdly enough, it happened to be highly reminiscent of one that I had just witnessed in a play (based on a work by Ibsen, no less). Like the jaded Nica and her wealthy pals, I’m starting to feel like I’ve seen it all before.