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Great summer reading: ‘Under a Dark Sky’


Eden’s husband is dead and she’s deeply phobic about the dark, but she’s going to take the northern Michigan vacation he planned for them anyway — at a dark sky park where there’s no light pollution at night to keep you from seeing the spectacular starry skies.

Why do something so counterintuitive? If people acted sensibly in novels like Lori Rader-Day's "Under A Dark Sky" a lot of great crime fiction would fizzle out. After pushing Chicago family and friends away and closing herself off “in a high white tower of misery,” Eden is tired of grief and fear. She also feels unproductive, and she’s trying to get past being furious at her late husband for having lied to her. Eden has to do something. If she doesn’t, she says she’ll remain “stunted and helpless ... while the world spun around me.”

But the reservations got fouled up somehow, and instead of being alone at the very tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Eden has to share the park’s guest house with six younger men and women, who are there for some kind of murky reunion. There’s all sorts of weird tension and jealousy simmering in this group. The last thing Eden wanted was company because people work her last nerve, but she thinks it’s too late to leave and drive the five hours back to Chicago because it’ll get dark soon.

Some readers at this point would be thinking that she doesn’t have to do the whole five-hour drive in one shot with night approaching — that she could easily find a hotel or motel somewhere between northern Michigan and Chicago.

And Michiganders know that if she drove due south from Mackinac City for about an hour while it was still light, she’d reach Gaylord and find plenty of hotels. Ditto if she drove southwest to Petoskey, which would be even closer. But we already know people don't act logically 24/7 in crime fiction.

Of course, Eden not only gets involved in a grotesque murder and takes on the role of amateur sleuth, she intriguingly becomes a prime suspect and suffers unexpected torments.

Rader-Day delivers a fiendishly clever plot and there are truly superb twists here. One of them blew my mind, and I reviewed crime fiction at the Detroit Free Press for a decade. I loved this finely wrought, exciting book. The dialogue is natural all the way through, the characters are beautifully individualized, and the author deftly builds tension at different levels while taking us deep into the heart of Eden’s grief.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not ruminating about the effects of losing a spouse or significant other. The author also does a perfectly calibrated slow reveal to explain why Eden is so damned mad at her husband, and what we find out is shocking. Perhaps best of all, there’s a terse, dramatic poetry to the narrative voice that is quietly compelling:

“I didn’t want the darkness to touch my skin. It made no sense. The darkness had no weight, no texture, no heat. And yet it burned me almost physically only to think of stepping out into its embrace.”

I sleep with blackout shades and sometimes even an eye mask, but reading this enthralling novel made me identify so much with Eden’s phobia that I wanted to turn on as many lights as possible. You might feel that way, too. Be prepared as well for a dark night of the soul or two in a superb mystery with tremendous psychological depth.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.


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