By Dan Hagen
Mary Maddox writes in the margins of 21st century America.
The central Illinois novelist’s thrillers often feature females economically and emotionally on the fraying edges of society, marginal people whose meager access to resources heightens their peril when something wicked their way goes. They haven’t got much with which to fight back, except wits.
In Darkroom, Kelly Durrell’s friend, Day, is benighted, a fact we can hear and smell even before we see her. Maddox’s deft description clues us in even as Kelly returns to her home with groceries. “Manic whoops and a whiff of cannabis seeped into the garage. Daffy Duck was getting high… A teenaged girl lived inside the body of a thirty-eight-year-old woman.”
Maddox sketches character in clear, economical lines: “He raised the empty mug and wiggled it; ‘Hannah.’ The server gave Alan a brisk nod and went on taking the order of a couple nearby. ‘Hannah likes girls.’ His tone insinuated that straight women fetched him beers at once.”
With one friend drugged-up and bipolar, and another who is cheating on her powerful and vengeful husband, Kelly is dropped into tension on page one of the novel, and Maddox weaves those threads around her swiftly. With several novels’ worth of experience, her sense of suspense is sure-footed.
Day is trouble, but she also has potential — specifically, the discernment of the professional photographer. “She studied (the photos), so caught up in Day’s experiments with contrast and nuance that she forgot she was looking at herself. It came as a shock when she remembered. The faces weren’t the familiar one in her bathroom mirror, the woman who dabbed her smudged mascara with a tissue and dreaded going to work. The photographs showed a woman with amazement shadowing her eye, a woman caught in the world’s strangeness.”
Tracing her vanished friend Day, Kelly finds evidence of another disappearance, and knows she’s getting too close to somebody who makes people go away for good.
But Kelly, who is credibly heroic without bravado, keeps searching as the shadows around her grow longer, until she finds herself on the radar of a Blackwater-like corporate police force that doesn’t mind murdering people for a client’s convenience.
Maddox sets aside the supernatural elements featured in her earlier suspense novels, and they are not missed here. She’s written a page-turner with realistic perils and motivations and palpable tension, one that builds momentum like a rockslide. It’s her best suspense novel to date.
Maddox’s novels are available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble Booksellers on line.