• Colorado Book Review

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

4.5 Stars


San Francisco missing persons detective Anna Hart’s toddler dies in a tragic accident. Anna’s husband blames her and she retreats to her one-time home in Mendocino where she lived with her only good foster parents, to grieve the death of her child and death of her marriage. When she arrives in her home town, Anna learns of a missing local girl, which causes her to recall the murder of her childhood friend, the event which triggered Anna to work in law enforcement.


Anna feels that she has been metaphysically led to this place, and at his time, where past trauma and current trauma collide into a psychological roller coaster, and maybe, if she can find the missing girl, she can also solve the murder of her childhood friend. While unable to deal with her own grief over her child’s death, Anna obsessively throws herself headlong into the case, discovering long-lost traumatic memories of her own family history, and uses these insights in searching for the missing girl. There are no leads, and no clues. Anna knows the statistics of missing children, but in spite of this, keeps pressing on in hope.


Author Paula McLain’s prose is hauntingly beautiful and unflinching in its vulnerability, sadness, and insight into the psychological injuries and lasting effects created by childhood trauma. The subject matter is heavy, tangible, and bitter on the tongue, but so skillfully wrought that the character’s internal conflict is as interesting as the exterior case. The author weaves true crime with historical fiction; the story is set in 1993 when there were no cell phones, nor DNA, nor Internet to help, and investigators had to use their wits to solve cases. The setting of Mendocino feels as real as your own backyard and is a background character, always there, always peaceful, but with many dark secrets.


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