The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon is a literary thriller with Gothic overtones—and a serial killer (available January 2, 2013).
In 1985 Regina Dufrane’s mother, Vera, was the last known victim of a serial killer called Neptune who would leave the severed hands of his victims on the steps of the Brighton Falls police department, then—exactly five days later—leave the bodies out in a public space. When Neptune kidnapped Vera, he left her hand just like the others. Then he disappeared. Five days came and went. Vera’s body was never found.
Twenty-five years later Reggie, now a successful award-winning architect, receives the inevitable phone call. Vera has been found. Alive. Now Reggie is called back to a home she’s been avoiding for years in order to help her mother. And, while finding Vera alive is both strange and wonderful—a crazy kind of mixed blessing—someone has come back to Brighton Falls with Reggie’s mother: the killer who left her alive.
Jennifer McMahon’s new novel, The One I Left Behind, is a literary thriller filled with beautifully flawed characters (including one very believable serial killer), dark secrets, and psychological twists and turns. In the Dufrane family, McMahon has created a foundation of mistrust that calls to mind Gothic ghost stories. In Reggie’s friends, she has created characters that feel and behave just like real people: confused, angry, and loving all at the same time. And in Neptune McMahon has created a killer who is frightening, not because of his kills, but because of what he’s willing to do before he kills.
The Dufrane family has lived in a house called Monique’s Wish for generations. It was built as a tribute to Reggie’s grandmother from Reggie’s grandfather, Andre. But the house is all wrong, created in a way unable to withstand the unrelenting harshness of time or outside forces—something celebrity-architect Reggie notices right away when she comes back home:
The house was laid out west to east, all wrong for a hilltop that got such great southern exposure. If Andre had studied the landscape, worked with it a little, faced the building to the south, put in more windows, considered the placement of trees more carefully—it would have been a warmer, brighter place. The density of the stone might even have worked in their favor, acting as thermal storage. As it was, the house was in shade most of the year, and the walls and roof were spotted with moss. The building looked as gray and damp as a poisonous toadstool.
I don’t think it’s surprising to note that the family is just as moldering and shady as the house they live in. Reggie doesn’t know what to think of her mother—why didn’t Vera try to find her? And where has her mother been all these years? Reggie’s aunt Lorraine is distant, yet overbearing. Vera herself is suffering from terminal cancer and a mental break that leaves her frightened, spacey, and lucid in turns. All of them keep secrets from one another. None of them know how to play well with others.
As a teenager, Reggie responds to the family dynamic by avoiding home and hanging out with two other outcasts: Charlie, the son of the lead detective on the Neptune case, and Tara, the punkish girl who has an unhealthy fascination with Neptune’s victims. Tara even goes so far as to claim a connection with the killer’s first victim via the classic mode of communion with the dead—the Ouija board:
“Who are you?” Reggie asked, he mouth going dry. This wasn’t real. This was just Tara playing one of her games, taking things too far. But just like with all of Tara’s games, what choice did Reggie have but to play along? And wasn’t it kind of thrilling? Pretending that it just might be real. Tricking herself into believing so that her heart hammered while she waited for Tara to answer, even though she knew just what Tara would say.
Outside, the rain pounded on the roof. It was coming in through the windows, some drops making it all the way to Reggie’s arm, which turned to gooseflesh.
“Andrea,” Tara said, smiling. “My name is Andrea McFerlin.”
Reggie felt like she’d been hit in the stomach with a ball of lightning. The electricity moved through her, into arms and out her fingers, making them tingle as it discharged. She jerked her hands away from the Ouija board.
Tara isn’t the only one who has turned into a strange Neptune voyeur. The small town of Brighton Falls is shaken—but that doesn’t stop loads of people from showing up at the Silver Spoon, the diner where the second victim worked. Fear drives hundreds of tips and possible leads into the police.
To emphasize the impact of the events of 1985, McMahon inserts faux selections from a true-crime book: Neptune’s Hands: The True Story of the Unsolved Brighton Falls Slayings by Martha S. Paquette. McMahon takes the liberty of interspersing excerpts throughout the novel. Far from feeling like “filler,” these sections actually add clout to the fictional serial killer. The Paquette excerpts bring to mind the hundreds of books written on Ted Bundy, Gary Ridgway, John Wayne Gacy, and Richard Ramirez, and countless Dateline true-stories:
Thirty-six-year-old Andrea McFerlin was a stylish woman with frosted hair and impeccable make-up. A certified public accountant, she worked for LaRouche & Jaimeson, where her coworkers described her as dedicated and conscientious. She was the one who remembered birthdays in the office and organized the secret Santa gifts at Christmastime. She had left for a weeklong business trip on Saturday, May 25, but never made her flight. Her family and coworkers thought she’d been too busy with the conference to check in by phone, and none of them worried when they didn’t hear from her. Her car was later found in the long-term parking lot at the airport, suitcase still inside.
McMahon braids these excerpts with Reggie’s past and present to create a gorgeous collage of a story. In one spot there’s the youthfulness of treehouses and childhood crushes. In another corner there’s the shadow of cancer, the loss of a mother. Right in the center is Reggie the capable woman who has managed to take care of herself in spite of violence and loss. Juxtaposed against Reggie-the-capable-woman is Reggie-the-lost-teenager who longs for sharp objects. Off to the side is a hand. Over all of the story, all of the collage, there is Neptune’s shadow.
The One I Left Behind kept me turning pages—and every time I thought I could take a breather, well, I was wrong. On top of the driving pace, there were small flourishes—architecture, prosthetics, treehouses—that added a refreshing, offbeat flavor very similar to McMahon’s first novel, Promise Not to Tell, in which a character lived in a teepee. In the end, I cared too much about the characters to put the book down. I needed to know what happened next. That’s always a good sign.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.