‘A Flicker in the Dark’ proves Stacy Willingham is a master at sleight of hand

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

All thrillers include twists and deception. But in “A Flicker in the Dark,” Stacy Willingham proves that she is a master at creating a narrative that deceives us again and again, and as we keep reading with our suspicions firmly planted on one character and then another, she shocks us with a villain that we truly didn’t see coming. At least I didn’t. I reread sections to see artfully placed hints, so subtle and skillfully woven into the narrative that only the finest detective might have noticed them for what they were — signs that we were looking the wrong way.

Chloe Davis is the narrator and at first glance she’s an admirable main character. She has her doctorate in psychology and recently opened her own office as a clinical psychologist. She lives in a beautiful house in Baton Rouge in the Garden District, has a handsome and successful fiancé. Her brother Cooper is charming and they are very close. But on closer inspection, there is much that is wrong both with Chloe and her past.

We learn that when she was twelve, six teenage girls disappeared. Her father ultimately confessed to their murders after Chloe uncovered evidence of his guilt. Shortly thereafter, her mother unsuccessfully tried to kill herself, surviving but because of oxygen deprivation, living in a helpless, uncommunicative state. Chloe is not a main character we like very much. She drinks to excess on top of illegally prescribing prescription medication to herself, which she uses to self-medicate and rid her mind of depressing thoughts about her past.

We enter the story long after Chloe has left the small Louisiana town where she grew up and where the murders took place. But the story begins as a teenager in Baton Rouge is kidnapped and murdered, and a week later, one of Chloe’s patients, a new patient, is kidnapped and murdered. Chloe is horrified to realize that in both murders, jewelry was taken from the victims, thus mimicking her father’s method of murder. The narration begins in May, 2018, as Chloe and Daniel are planning for their July wedding. Interspersed with the present-day murders and her relationship with Daniel and her brother, Chloe revisits her past.

We learn about her idyllic childhood growing up with loving parents and a kind older brother who was charismatic and popular. Life seemed good, living in the huge home that had been in their family for generations and was situated on 10 acres surrounded by swamps she and Cooper loved to explore. It seemed perfect until her friend, Lena, a girl Cooper’s age who befriended Chloe, was murdered. And she was only the first one.

Over the course of the novel, WIllingham provides us with a perfect suspect. Someone in Chloe’s life is not who they appear to be. She uncovers lie after lie, deception after deception. Willingham also give us a perfectly plausible reason that Chloe can’t go to the police — they won’t believe her because her paranoia, understandable because of her childhood trauma, has led her to “cry wolf” one too many times. And Chloe feels that somehow, these new murders are directed at her. First her patient is kidnapped right after their session, and she soon realizes that she has a connection to the other victim as well. So Chloe feels she must investigate and uncover the new serial killer on her own because part of her believes they are dying because of her.

Yes, Chloe does the typically stupid things we cringe at by putting herself in danger as she confronts suspects on her own. We also cringe at some of her self-destructive behaviors. But we don’t need to like or admire Chloe to appreciate her predicament and wonder who the murderer really is. And Willingham adds just enough backstory that we are engaged every step of the way. How will she uncover the culprit? The ending is delicious, and Willingham proves that just because this is her first novel doesn’t mean she doesn’t write with finesse and aplomb.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Minotaur Press, the publisher, for review purposes.