McLain herself has gone on to mine the life of Hemingway wife No. 3, journalist Martha Gellhorn, as well as the British aviator, Beryl Markham, who, in 1936, became the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. McLain’s latest novel, however, renounces the rewards of the tried-and-true. “When the Stars Go Dark” is a suspense story, and the grim history it draws upon is McLain’s own, interwoven with the real-life kidnapping cases of several young girls in Northern California in the 1990s.
As she acknowledges in her author’s note at the end of the novel, as well as in her 2003 memoir, “Like Family,” McLain, along with her two sisters, grew up in a series of foster homes. McLain’s mother disappeared when she was four, and her father spent intervals of time in jail. During the 14 years she spent in foster care, McLain endured sexual abuse. Anna Hart, the detective heroine in “When the Stars Go Dark,” is also a survivor of parental abandonment, the foster care system and sexual abuse. Anna’s trauma has helped her in her police work of tracking down the monsters who brutalize children.
In the opening of this novel, which is set in 1991, a grotesque personal tragedy has caused Anna to take to the road, abandoning her job, her husband and baby son. Eventually, she finds her way to the picturesque Northern California town of Mendocino, where she spent the most stable years of her youth. But tragedy dogs Anna: on her first day back in town, she stops into a cafe and spies a flier pinned up on a message board, printed with the all-too-familiar dread question: “Have You Seen Me?” Of course, Anna, a classic obsessive detective, plunges into the search for a 15-year-old girl named Cameron Curtis, who disappeared the previous day from her home on the outskirts of town.
McLain’s story line is fueled by pure high anxiety: Cameron turns out to be one of several adolescent girls nearby who’ve gone missing in recent months. Anna also learns that Cameron is adopted and has been struggling with identity issues. The fact that her mother is a movie star who’s moved to off-grid Mendocino to escape Hollywood complicates the investigation. In taut chapters (many of them averaging three to five pages) McLain deftly constructs a multi-part narrative that flashes back to Anna’s troubled upbringing and the family life she’s recently fled, while keeping pace with the sudden turns in the current case. The town of Mendocino, with its ocean fogs and ornate Victorian architecture, is an eerie presence in this novel, its otherworldliness intensified by Anna’s desperate recourse to a psychic for help in finding Cameron.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that McLain has shifted so fluidly from historical fiction to suspense, given the overlaps between the investigative work of the historian and the detective. But in “When the Stars Go Dark” McLain has not entirely abandoned her practice of fictionalizing the lives of real-life people. It’s this aspect of her novel — in which actual kidnapping victims and their families intersect with fictional victims — that some readers may find discomfiting. Anna references, among others, the kidnapping cases of Jaycee Dugard and Polly Klaas. In particular, she ruminates over Klaas’s disappearance as possibly part of a pattern that includes the fictional Cameron’s kidnapping. Anna visits Klaas’s house in Petaluma, California, and tours the bedroom from which Klaas was abducted, at age 12, during a slumber party in October 1993. (Klaas’s body was discovered two months later. Dugard, who was kidnapped in 1991, was found alive in 2009.)
Of course, real-life people and made-up characters intersect in McLain’s popular historical fiction, as they do in the novels of E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth and swarms of other literary postmodernists. Often we readers enjoy such mash-ups. Maybe, though, the key difference here — at least for me — is the horrific reason we know the names of these abducted and, frequently, murdered girls.
McLain treads very carefully in how she writes about Klaas’s case. “The profound suffering of the victims and their families crept into my dreams — and onto the page,” she explains in the author’s note. “It began to feel imperative that I tell their stories as bluntly and factually as possible, as a way to honor their lives and dignify their deaths and disappearances. Saying their names became for me a sacred act. A kind of prayer.”
“When the Stars Go Dark” is an atmospheric and intricately plotted suspense novel. But be forewarned: For some of us readers who remember the real-time terror of Klaas’s kidnapping and its tragic aftermath, this novel may be too faithful to history to be wholly pleasurable.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.