Down the Darkest Road – Tami Hoag

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Down the Darkest Road, a mystery/thriller by Tami Hoag, takes full advantage of the stories behind grim headlines to track a serial killer and the effect of a heinous crime on a single family. Lauren Lawton’s 16-year-old daughter goes missing and is never found. The family life turns from privileged to nightmare. Her husband kills himself and 12-year-old Leah forfeits her childhood and any sense of normalcy or nurture. And the irony is that Lauren knows who took her child but nothing can be proven.

A mother’s obsession with finding out what happened to her daughter in idyllic Santa Barbara is intensified when the predator begins to stalk her and then sues the local cops for failing to protect him from her response. In desperation, or something else, Lauren moves to a smaller town up the coast, Oak Knoll, where no one knows her or Leah and they can start over. But she doesn’t start over. The move is more complicated than it first appears.

As local detective Tony Mendez gets involved in the Lawton case, the slick killer resurfaces and the stalking resumes. Danni Tanner, Santa Barbara’s lone female detective, is handed the cold case and Tony consults her for background. No evidence indicts the supposed kidnapper but ominous sightings and deliberate clues appear and Leah and Lauren are clearly in the crosshairs. The Lawtons begin to unravel psychologically while a few cops race to find some legal way to protect them and solve the crime.

Lauren Lawton has no faith in law enforcement after four years of an unending ordeal so she takes matters into her own hands. The suspect infiltrates substrata of Oak Knoll where young women and high school girls congregate and continues a lifelong course of stalking, tracking, meticulous data gathering on his quarry and perverted break-ins. He seems to be lining up a long list of future victims and Leah, approaching the same age her sister was when she disappeared, is among them.

Lots of characters in Hoag’s novel have backstories replete with murder and sexual assault. That’s almost a distraction because the incidence of such crimes in California would appear to be exponentially higher than the national average if you go by this narrative. But the requisite threats, tension and extreme violence are all present in appropriate measure at key points in the story. It’s well-written and doesn’t disappoint for the genre. Pretty easy to see why Tami Hoag is a massively successful author—she has this style down and her latest book was a compelling, if not very redemptive, read. No happy endings in Down the Darkest Road but the consolation is that things wrap up better than they might have in the real world, some threats are removed and the damaged survivors are free to rebuild and reinvent their lives.

Down the Darkest Road   Tami Hoag | Dutton  2012

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