Archive for October, 2021

Review: When the Stars Go Out

Saturday, October 9th, 2021

I like to imagine that most people who enjoy reading have embraced the idea that writing in genre can be a stregth rather than a limitation. I often find it helpful to think of artists primarily being in one of the camps Scott McCloud defines in Understanding Comics. Broadly those are storytellers and commenters on form. Paula McLain is solidly in the first camp. She’s got things to say and is using the mystery/crime fiction genre to structure the story. The result is a page-turning story.

The focus is a cop on a break to deal with trauma cast in the role of of private eye in her home town. “Cop” undersells her skills – she’s an experienced and effective investigator who can’t leave a case in her specialty alone, and picks one up here. This is a fairly common crime fiction setup and Stars mostly follows the conventions from that to a conventional conclusion. I mean if you’ve ever read a mystery, you’ll recognize the beats of the story, but that genre has a rich enough body of beats to choose from that the effect is that I recognized I was hearing salsa and also that I was hearing excellent salsa. McLain’s prose is expressive and her plotting is propulsive. It’s a gripping read.

Her story also lights up a lot of ideas and issues worth thinking about. The investigation is into the disappearance of young girls in rural communities. The setting is Northern California in this case, but I think the ideas are more universal. I think there’s no way to talk about that without talking about the foster case system, personal trauma of the perpetrators, victims, and families, and the effects and support of the communities. McLain doesn’t blink at any of that. She brings solid research, and for all I know experience, to the details of plot, character and setting that elevate Stars from the run-of-the-mill.

She also deftly ties this to a story most Americans will recognize from the headlines, which is a nice subtle way to underscore the point that she’s telling us what headlines obscure about that kind of story.

Strongly recommended.