A Map of the Dark by Karen Ellis is the first book in the Searchers series—a race-against-time thriller where FBI Agent Elsa Myers may have to lose herself in order to save a missing girl.
The name Karen Ellis is new to the annals of crime fiction, but the powerhouse behind that pseudonym is one that discerning readers will recognize: Katia Lief. Lief is the internationally bestselling author of the four-book Karin Schaeffer series (among other works), the last of which, The Money Kill (2013), was nominated for the prestigious Mary Higgins Clark Award. A teacher of fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan, she makes her debut as Ellis with A Map of the Dark.
As the story opens, readers are introduced to FBI Agent Elsa Myers of the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Unit (CARD). Though accustomed to professional crises, it’s a personal one that she’s reckoning with—her dad’s hospitalization due to a terminal cancer diagnosis—when her supervisor calls requesting her immediate assistance in the disappearance of 17-year-old Ruby Haverstock.
It’s Sunday morning, and the girl went missing Friday night. Despite her desire to refuse the assignment, Elsa knows that the first 48 hours are critical—and that the clock has been steadily ticking down. Further impelling her to act is the fact that the detective on the case is new to his precinct, whereas she has an impressive record of closing cases.
It’s with an equal sense of duty and guilt that she leaves her father’s bedside in Sleepy Hollow for the Forest Hills precinct in Queens where she is to meet Detective Lex Cole. The youngish Cole, who is of Eastern European descent, strikes her as unconventionally handsome and approachable. The two quickly dispense with formalities; regardless of her initial misgivings—which are not dispelled by the knowledge that he’s an Ivy Leaguer—Elsa finds herself appreciating his openness (even if it sometimes annoys her). She is further intrigued to learn that he requested her consultation on the case specifically.
A rundown of the known facts reveals the following: Ruby, who works the after-school-to-evening shift at Queens Beans a few days a week, turned off the security camera just prior to the end of her shift on Friday. She then buzzed somebody in. That person’s identity remains a mystery, as do Ruby’s current whereabouts.
An Amber Alert is issued, and Elsa and Cole hit the streets to talk to Ruby’s friends and associates. What they find is that she’s a seemingly well-adjusted teen with a few secrets that may—or may not—have bearing on her disappearance.
Meanwhile, Elsa’s niece, Mel, insinuates herself into the situation over her aunt’s vehement objections, volunteering in the search efforts for Ruby and subsequently befriending the missing girl’s clique—some of whom prove to be less than wholesome. But it’s the discovery that Ruby may be the victim of a serial killer who is repeating a pattern of abductions and murders that changes the course of the investigation. When Mel herself goes missing under suspicious circumstances, it becomes clear that she’s become part of a predator’s deadly pattern—and that all bets are off.
While the procedural elements are intact, Ellis also intersperses occasional chapters from the perspectives of the victims—including a prologue that concludes with these chillingly simple lines: “Something in the man’s eye strikes her mute. An impulse to run fires her nerves. And then he shows her a gun.” Not only do these segments heighten the tension while simultaneously humanizing the abductees, they also provide a counterbalance to Elsa’s ruminations; additionally, they highlight the sparseness of the writing, which is consistently economical yet entirely cogent throughout.
The author also offers tantalizing bits of backstory through recurrent flashbacks that, while brief, reveal the origins of Elsa’s physical and emotional scars. The older (and more strong-willed) sister of two, she suffered repeated abuse at the hands of her mother; while her father was aware of the situation, he did nothing to resolve it, instead allowing himself to be consumed with work outside of the home.
While Elsa eventually learned to strike back, it wasn’t until her mother was killed that the constant uncertainty of triggering an episode stopped. And though her death brought about an end to the beatings, it didn’t resolve the psychological trauma that manifested in Elsa’s self-cutting—the temptation of which still plagues her:
She scratches every neon-pulsing scar on her legs, hips, stomach, arms. The pictograms of her failures heat to the hard edges of her fingernails, the crude blade-drawn outlines of sometimes something … and often nothing, just scratches, cuts tallied on her skin. She’s a patchwork quilt by now … She’s been sober for years, chaste, untouched by anything sharp enough to rupture skin (if you don’t count scratching), but it doesn’t matter. The scars are always there, a web of permanent reminders. And sometimes her skin hurts, hurts, and other times the scars burn for attention. Elsa’s skin calls to her the way a drink calls to an alcoholic, promising relief, delivering shame.
Understandably, Elsa’s feelings for her father are conflicted; his impending death and the resultant sale of their family home (and all its history and hauntings) only compound that divergence. But the secrets of her youth complicate other relationships as well—including a tentative kinship with her sister, Tara, and the burgeoning alliance with Cole (who has his own sordid past and is insistent on traversing her walls). Elsa is compelled to hide the evidence of her cutting at all costs, meaning that romantic liaisons are near impossible despite her desire for intimacy; platonic friendships are scarce too, given the expectation of transparency and Elsa’s reluctance to reveal her vulnerabilities. Of course, it’s those very fragilities that make her sympathetic.
A Map of the Dark is lean, mean, and perhaps even a bit sanguine. Regardless of the byline, Ellis/Lief is an astoundingly good storyteller whose characters are as well-drawn and enticing as her plots. This offering marks the beginning of a promising new chapter in the author’s career, and readers couldn’t ask for a better guide to light the way forward.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.