I’d like to get a look at Laurie R. King’s royalty statements. She writes solid procedural mysteries set in San Francisco; the lead detective is a gay cop named Kate Martinelli. Then there’s the extensive series of historical mysteries involving Sherlock Holmes and his notional wife — it seems like a travesty to give Holmes a wife and I really dislike historical mysteries, but these seem to be very popular. Then there are independent thrillers, quite dark. Maybe an American analogue to Barbara Vine, but with a little more action. A Darker Place falls into this category. I’d love to know which of these three categories sells best, though I have a feeling it’s the Holmes ones.
But A Darker Place is very satisfying. King’s a good writer: she has that mysterious quality of readability, which I can’t quite define. Maybe it’s the literary version of charm? I do think it’s a gift, uncultivatable. And lots of the best writers don’t have it. It’s perfectly possible to write a great book that is not readable in the sense I’m mulling over. (Also, readability is not actually the same as literary charm, though one might say they were related. I think that, in order to be charming, a book needs to be readable but the converse is not true.) Anyway, what I mean is that King’s books suck you in. One sentence leads to another, a little description creates a vivid world, and you simply want to keep going. (Looking back, I see that I read another King thriller, Touchstone, about a year ago and it didn’t entirely share this quality, so apparently readability can be intermittent, too.)
Even when, as in this case, the heroine is an emotionally fragile academic who goes under cover into a religious cult and tries to rescue two children, one of whom reminds her of her own long-dead daughter. King appears to be quite fascinated with both extreme belief systems and with children in crisis, so these themes tend to overlap in an explosive way in her books. In this case, Anne Waverley disguises herself as Ana Wakefield to attach herself to a volatile group in the Arizona desert. Ultimately she has to come to grips with her own terrible memories in a way that King manages to present as both a searing crisis and an opportunity for a brighter future. What’s weird about this book is that while the tension builds evenly as King exposes her protagonist to one pressure after another, the climax is strangely scanted. It’s narrated, not from within Ana’s head, but from the point of view of a rather detached omniscient narrator and the result is so jarring that I kept flipping back to make sure I hadn’t somehow skipped a page or two. I was surprised that an editor hadn’t made King go back and slow the scene down, make it more dramatic and more visual — after all, she blows up a house. You’d think as a writer you’d want to really milk an event like that.