Monday, June 1, 2020

The Familiar Dark - Amy Engel

Summary: Set in the poorest part of the Missouri Ozarks, in a small town with big secrets, The Familiar Dark opens with a murder. Eve Taggert, desperate with grief over losing her daughter, takes it upon herself to find out the truth about what happened. Eve is no stranger to the dark side of life, having been raised by a hard-edged mother whose lessons Eve tried not to pass on to her own daughter. But Eve may need her mother's cruel brand of strength if she's going to face the reality about her daughter's death and about her own true nature. Her quest for justice takes her from the seedy underbelly of town to the quiet woods and, most frighteningly, back to her mother's trailer for a final lesson. (Summary and pic from

My Review: It just so happens that over the past couple of months I have read a lot of books that take place in the Appalachian Mountains. They have been in different states, but they have been about the same type of people and had similar cultures. It’s been interesting because they’ve taken place in vastly different times—one was historical fiction from 1907, one was from during the Civil War, and then The Familiar Dark takes place in modern times. I didn’t plan to binge on Appalachia, but two book club books and then this one all happened to take place there. It’s been interesting, actually. I like really digging in to a topic, whether it is about a historical figure, books by the same author, or in this case, place and culture. I’ve especially enjoyed seeing a historical progression through the books, and can’t help but think that although some things have changed, they haven’t changed that much. Place is important in our lives and essential in stories.

If you’ve read my other reviews, you know I’m all about making place a character. I enjoy when the atmosphere of a book matters. Where we come from matters and affects everything about us—cultural norms and expectations, religious predominance, weather, etc., there is no doubt place affects us. The Familiar Dark does a great job of creating place. The economic depression of the area, the history, and the fact that the same people were raised there and stayed there makes for an interesting group history that carries a lot of burdens for everyone. The physical environment of the Appalachian Mountains also makes for an isolated feel, and allows people with unsavory intentions to hide and easily create compounds that are strengthened by natural boundaries and the lay of the land. Engel uses the Appalachian Mountains effectively. She allows the natural hollers and foliage hide people and their homes when necessary, creating compounds and unbreachable fortresses, but also allows the environment to be an effective camouflage for sneaking around. The darkness, the mystery, the isolation all makes for a very creepy atmosphere that underlies this very creepy book.

I liked the voice of the female protagonist. She’s had a rough life and a really rough upbringing, and obviously the murder of her daughter has pushed her over the edge. She is smart but also brave and reckless, and that made for an interesting dichotomy of being able to relate to her but also feel sorry for her at the same time. I thought the other characters in the book were strong as well, although it’s a fairly short book and so I think there could have been a lot more background covered on a lot of them. As with many murder mystery books, however, the characters don’t need to be as fleshed out or deep as another genre of novel because the mystery is what’s important.

So that brings us to the mystery. It’s always hard to read about murder, and murder of a child is especially difficult. I know there are people out there who try to figure out the answer to the mystery before the book is over, but I’m not necessarily one of those people. I like to just take things as they come and let the author lead me along. I didn’t feel like this mystery was especially hidden. Sometimes I’m totally shocked by the twists and turns, but this one wasn’t this way. As someone who usually doesn’t try to guess, the fact that I kind of knew all along is not a good sign for those of you who like to engage your brains more and really try to Sherlock it up before the ending. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a solid book. I actually enjoyed it and read it really quickly. The writing is very accessible; the voice is strong and made for some great reading and understanding.

If you want to pick up a quick murder mystery with great atmosphere and some dark characters and a satisfying (though dark) ending, this book is for you. I read it easily in a day, and I think it’s a fun and low commitment book with just the right amount of creepiness and good murder mystery for a chilly day and a read-in-one-setting feel.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and sex, and some violence. However, it is way tamer than the Scandinavian author variety, and if you’re into murder mystery, this will be a pretty standard read as far as language and violence go.  

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