The back cover of The Dark Room features a blurb by Stephen King, praising Jonathan Moore’s previous novel, The Poison Artist: “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” That novel, by Thomas Harris, remains at the top of my own personal Scariest Book list (followed closely by Lee Child’s Make Me). I was a little hesitant to dive in, but I find it hard to resist noir thrillers set in San Francisco, so I persevered.
On the whole, I’m glad I did, although when I described the plot to my husband, his reaction was one of ewwwww, so be advised that this book is not for the squeamish. (There are several scenes set in morgues.) Still, I found The Dark Room, which takes place in a San Francisco where it never seems to stop raining, to be a chilling and appropriate read for a wet and windy Bay Area weekend.
SFPD homicide detective Gavin Cain is attending an exhumation at a cemetery near Monterey when he’s summoned back to San Francisco by the mayor. Someone has sent him a threatening letter, along with several photographs. Mayor Castelli claims he has never seen the woman in the photos. Is he being blackmailed? He wants Cain to find out what’s going on, but the inspector is pretty sure the mayor’s a shady character and isn’t telling him the whole story.
Gradually, we learn more about the exhumation, and that it seems to tie into the investigation involving the mayor. Cain also gets to know Castelli’s family: his wife Mona and 19-year-old daughter Alexa. When Cain goes to visit Mona at the Castellis’ tony Sea Cliff home, I somehow knew before he arrived at her front door that she would be a bitter alcoholic “drinking a pitcher of martinis alone at two on a weekday afternoon.” And it wasn’t a huge surprise that Alexa turns out to be a troubled nymphette with a penchant for taking off her clothes.
Less of a noir trope is Cain’s girlfriend Lucy, a pianist suffering from agoraphobia and anxiety as a result of past trauma that is revealed later in the book. I found myself so concerned about the fate of fragile Lucy that I almost flipped to the end to see whether or not Moore killed her off in some horrific Gwyneth Paltrow-in-“Se7en” scenario. (No spoilers here, natch.)
The Dark Room is very well plotted, with a satisfying and logical solution. It’s a creepy but strangely compelling book.
Unlike Moore, John Lescroart lives in Northern California, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his San Francisco setting is dry and drought-ridden, as was the case here until just a few months ago. In fact, the drought plays a small role in the story, helping a detective find an important clue.
Fatal, a stand-alone thriller, starts off with an affair—a man and a woman, both married to other people, meet at a dinner party thrown by mutual friends. They agree that their tryst at a downtown hotel will be a one-time thing… but will it? At this point, I assumed the novel was going to turn into a Fatal Attraction style scenario where one of the people won’t take no for an answer, but the plot really takes a turn when a major event occurs that changes the lives of all the characters. To say more would spoil the twists that await the reader.
Some pretty awful things happen in Fatal, but Lescroart has a breezier style than Moore, so there’s less of a persistent sense of dread. Something I thought was going to turn into a major plot point winds up being mostly dropped, and the ending may not satisfy readers who want everything tied up with a bow. But Lescroart knows how to craft a page-turner, and once I was halfway through Fatal, I didn’t stop ’til I’d reached the end.