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Book Review: 'When the Stars Go Dark' Weaves Together Fiction And Real-Life Tragedies

It’s hard to categorize When the Stars Go Dark, Paula McLain’s latest book. It’s a mystery. A thriller. An atmospheric literary novel that weaves together actual missing-person cases with characters drawn from the author’s personal experience.

The story centers on Anna Hart, a San Francisco homicide detective. Dealing with a personal family tragedy, she flees to the Northern California town of Mendocino to grieve. That’s where she lived as a child with her beloved foster parents. The day she arrives, Anna learns that a local teenage girl has gone missing. Days later, 12-year-old Polly Klaas is abducted at knifepoint during a sleepover in her California home. Anna is driven to help investigate the Mendocino case in part because it echoes an unsolved murder from her past.

So that’s the outstanding premise. What really shines in this novel, though, is McLain’s writing, research, and her authoritative, authentic voice. Set in October of 1993, the story relates details of the real-life kidnapping of Polly Klaas, which led to changes in the California legal system and Amber Alert laws in all 50 states.

McLain crafts a multilayered mystery that also sheds light on the hidden scars of sexual abuse—a pain the author knows, as a sexual abuse survivor.

“I’ve seen it over and over,” Anna says in the novel, “how a trauma survivor’s story finds a way to tell her instead of the other way around.”

McLain found a way to tell her story, as well as those of kidnapping victims and their families. The result is a page-turner of a novel -- hard to put into a category, and impossible to put down.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.