Book review: Down the darkest road

Book review: Down the Darkest Road, By Tami Hoag
Published in the The sunday Business Post on February 26th, 2012. By Alex Meehan

If someone kidnapped one of your children, and you knew that they’d done it but couldn’t prove anything, what would you do? That’s the central question posed in Tami Hoag’s latest crime thriller, Down the Darkest Road, the third in the author’s Oak Knoll series of mysteries.

Set in the late 1980s when modern police mainstays such as forensics, mobile phone technology and DNA testing had yet to be become available, Down the Darkest Road tells the story of Lauren Lawton’s attempts to rebuild her life four years after the unsolved disappearance of her 16 year old daughter.

Missing and presumed dead, Leslie Lawton was abducted while on her way home from a softball game in 1986. The prime suspect for the crime was Lawton family neighbour Roland Ballencoa. Known to be a convicted sex offender, the crime fit his pattern of behaviour but despite believing him to be responsible, the police were unable to find any credible evidence to charge him.

While dealing with the trauma of the disappearance, further tragedy struck the Lawton family when Lauren’s husband drove his car off a cliff. It’s reported as suicide, but Lawton suspects her family is actually being stalked by Ballencoa.

Despite feeling sure her daughter Leslie is still alive somewhere, Lauren decides the best thing for her family is to relocate from Santa Barbara to sleepy Oak Knoll in search of a fresh start. However a few months later she’s shocked to spot Ballencoa in town and it’s not long before fresh reports start to surface of 16 year old girls going missing.

Lawton’s youngest daughter Leah will soon turn 16 and so she launches a fresh campaign to convince the local police of Ballencoa’s guilt. She wins allies in the form of FBI agent Vince Leone and Oak Knoll sheriff’s detective Tony Mendez, but as the law enforcement team begins to close in on the suspected killer a plot twist changes the way the police are obliged to interpret events to date.

Down the Darkest Road is a good example of Hoag’s work – a smart and stylish whodunit with a 1980s feel to it. For crime fans steeped in the CSI style modern approach to sleuthing, it’s interesting to spend time in a decade when old fashioned detective work ruled the day, and it wasn’t possible to send scene-of-the-crime clues to the forensic labs for positive identification. Instead, Vince Leone and Tony Mendez spend part of the story learning about the brand new concept of criminal profiling.

Down the Darkest Road is a classic suspense thriller, with a serious touch of melancholy thrown in. The central question of when and how a parent should move on following the death or disappearance of a child remains at the heart of the story, giving this novel a genuinely sad undercurrent. Hoag has attempted to create a nuanced story, one in which the bad guys aren’t all they seem to be, but neither are the good guys, and in that she has written something that has a bit more resonance and depth than the average pulp fiction crime thriller.

It’s not perfect – there are some unresolved plot points and the plot twist when it arrives is jarring – but the characters are well drawn and it’s well paced. Down the Darkest Road will keep crime fans happy but also stands alone as a solid story that non-genre fans should get something out of.

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