The seedy underbelly of a small Missouri town is exposed when two young girls are brutally murdered one snowy night in this gripping psychological thriller. The opening chapter in The Familiar Dark is titled “The End.” and is a short, shocking page and a half that draws the reader straight into the narrative.

“They died during a freak April snowstorm, blood pooling on a patchy bed of white.”

Two 12-year-old girls have had their throats slashed, Izzy dies quickly, the second girl, Junie, watches the light fade from her friend’s eyes as she too bleeds out into the snow. An unidentified character hushes Junie and strokes her hair as she takes her last breaths. Junie’s memories are of her mother, Eve Tagget.

The novel’s final chapter is titled “The Beginning.” In the middle of the story is Eve. Grieving for her daughter, she swears she will track down and kill the person who has so brutally murdered her only child. But she is warned some secrets are better left buried as she will eventually discover.

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Eve’s life had been on the skids before she gave birth to Junie. Brought up in a rundown trailer by a hard-drinking, drug-taking mother, Eve and her older brother Cal have to fend for themselves and grow up quickly. Cal is Eve’s rock. He looked out for her during their childhood, the one constant source of love and affection Eve had. Now a cop, Cal provides financial support so Eve can give Junie a better start in life than they had away from the gratuitous violence, drug-taking and grinding poverty they knew.

Eve has been estranged from her mother for years. Her “Mama’s” brand of tough love is not how she intends to bring up her own child. Eve works all hours in the local diner and is determined Junie get the best start in life she can give her.

Eve is initially stunned by her daughter’s death but once her grief moves on, her anger drives her to pursue the truth regardless of the dangers she faces. There were some decisions Eve makes which I was doubtful about. Perhaps grief does drive a person a little crazy. How far would a parent go to find the truth? Despite these occasional lapses in reality, I was on Eve’s side from the off, cheering her on and willing her to discover the truth.

Eve’s spent her adult life trying to escape the poverty of her childhood but quickly discovers she needs all of her mother’s steely determination and cruel strength if she is going to catch her daughter’s killer. Eve can’t rely on the police to find her daughter’s murderer, Cal’s boss seems disinterested at best, possibly corrupt and in the pocket of the criminals behind the killings. So Eve becomes embroiled with an old flame, a violent and controlling drug dealer as a way to get to the truth.

Barren Springs is a perfect setting for The Familiar Dark. The town is little more than a single run of low-rent properties and stores either side of the main road. Sleazy bars and ruined lives are every day here. Eve has tried to leave the toxic relationships she formed in her youth behind but they are waiting to reclaim her after her daughter’s death. The town has more than its fair share of bad people who occasionally surprise the reader by doing the right thing. No one is entirely evil and Engel’s mix of characters shows all the facets of human nature.

The novel explores the relationships between women, particularly mother and daughter, and the effect of grinding poverty on the generations of a family. The twist at the end of the novel is as satisfying as it is horrific. I was left wondering what Eve would do after the final sentence. I liked her as a character and sympathised with her horrendous situation – I hope she does okay.

Some readers might find this a tough read in places. There is graphic violence from the outset, Eve’s choices as far as old boyfriends are concerned are dire and parents, in particular, may find the subject matter difficult. I enjoyed the novel immensely, finding it engrossing and well written and finished it in just a handful of sittings. I am looking forward to reading Engel’s first adult novel, The Roanoke, just as soon as I can get my hands on a copy – it has excellent reviews. If you enjoy engrossing, gritty, psychological thrillers, The Familiar Dark is likely to be a book you’ll find difficult to put down. A highly recommended read.

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Buy the book.


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