In the very first sentence of “The Family Plot,” by Megan Collins, the first person narrator shares the fact that she was named Dahlia after Black Dahlia, an actress who was gruesomely murdered. Likewise, her siblings were named after other murder victims, including her twin brother, Andy, named after Lizzie Borden’s father. The matriarch of the Lighthouse family came from a wealthy family, and her children knew, growing up, that her parents were murder victims. Their father was distant from the two girls, but shared his favorite pastime, hunting, with Andy and their older brother Charlie.
From the start, we learn that their whole childhood was twisted and warped. Their mother homeschooled them, and everything they did and learned had to do with murders and the murder victims. They lived in an old mansion at the top of Blackburn Island, where they were isolated from others who lived on the island. Adding to the gruesome murders that they studied, on that island there was a serial killer, the Blackburn Killer, who killed many women over the course of twenty years and who was never caught. In this twisted atmosphere, they would hold “Honoring” ceremonies, where they lit candles and remembered murder victims.
It’s now been years since Dahlia left her home and the island. While her older siblings, Charlie and Tate, left on their 18th birthdays, the dates they received access to their trust funds, Dahlia remained for an extra year. Andy, her twin, disappeared on the evening of their 16th birthday, leaving behind a cryptic note, and she’s been searching for him ever since. Charlie and Tate are practically strangers to Dahlia because of the disparity in age and the fact that they both left as soon as they could and only returned once for that 16th birthday. Andy’s disappearance left Dahlia feeling bereft of family. Her mother wasn’t warm and loving, her father was distant and barely interacted with his daughters, and the older siblings had their own strangely close relationship. So Dahlia spends her time, all her time, searching for her brother. She’s convinced that he’s alive somewhere, sure that because of their close relationship, she’d know if he had died.
Now Dahlia has returned to the island and her childhood home for the first time in many years because of the death of her father. She is hoping that Andy will hear about the death and return. But Andy doesn’t show up, and her hopes for Andy’s return are finally shattered when his murdered corpse does appear, in her father’s burial plot. Bizarrely, her parents had their burial plots prepared for them years before, and no one had noticed that someone was buried in their father’s plot. Andy was killed with the ax he loved to carry around.
Much of the story centers around the absolutely creepy, unnatural behavior of pretty much every member of the LIghthouse family. Their mother now starts baking cookies, something she had never done before. Charlie is drinking nonstop and also appears to be a tortured soul, working feverishly to turn their mansion into a murder museum. Tate continues working on her dioramas of death scenes, which have given her Instagram influencer status. She has always been creative, and her recreation of the death scenes of the Blackburn Killer’s victims have given her dedicated followers. Now, to Dahlia’s horror, she is recreating Andy’s death scene. Dahlia has done nothing with her life but live on her trust funds and spend every day looking for Andy. She has one friend, Greta, who loves true crime and helps Dahlia in her online searches. Each and every one of the Lighthouse family is a warped individual, and it’s an uncomfortable experience reading about their strangeness.
But the story is intriguing, and Collins truly plumbs the depths of human depravity as we learn more about what really occurred in the Lighthouse children’s childhood. Who is the Blackburn Island Killer? Collins provides many clues and many red herrings, although when we finally learn the truth, it’s not a complete surprise. But all the truths there are to learn do include some very surprising ones. Surprising, shocking, and heartbreaking. For this is not just a murder mystery, it’s a story of psychological torture and betrayal by parents who deprive their children of a normal, loving childhood. Both parents are equally culpable, although in quite different ways.
“The Family Plot” will draw you into what seems a spider’s web of death, and instead of trying to break free of the spider’s insidious lair, you will follow each silken thread as each path leads to horrifying truth after devastating truth until we see what is at the center of the silky trap — because some in the Lighthouse family were truly trapped in that web and could not see any way out. You will definitely be tempted to read this twice, the better to see what was missed during the first reading. The clues were there, but the answers lay frustratingly out of reach.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.