Christina McDonald serves up another gorgeously written contemporary novel of suspense with dollops of the supernatural and a twist of gothic. Combining heart-aching loss with female courage, THESE STILL BLACK WATERS offers a jaw-dropping twist that is brilliantly executed. The characters are so real and fully fleshed out that the immersive story takes over so that you’re not prepared for the twist when it emotionally takes you by the throat and stops you from breathing.
But back to the basics.
Three voices tell the story in alternating chapters—Neve Maguire Campbell, Police Detective Jess Lambert, and the killer.
Neve, mom to 16-year-old Ash, takes her daughter to the old family home on Black Lake to escape recent memories of Ash being hit by a bullet during a horrifying house break-in. Neve hopes a peaceful retreat will help with the healing. Neve hasn’t been to the house in twenty years because of a traumatic incident that she’s kept secret. But Neve’s past catches up with her. The day after arriving at Dullahan House, the body of a woman is dragged from the lake and identified as Bailey Nelson, one of Neve’s old friends from school. Neve is also having what appear to be blackouts where she wakes up in different places and doesn’t know how she gets there.
Police detective Jess Lambert questions Neve about Bailey, but Neve won’t divulge the secret she’s kept so long. She’s more about protecting Ash and helping Ash heal. Jess, however, understands because she had a daughter, Isla, who died in a car accident when Jess drove off the road and into the river. Jess’s leg was mangled, her heart was broken, and she became an alcoholic from the guilt. She barely keeps it together as she goes after Bailey’s killer. She also talks with her daughter’s ghost.
Then a second body is found. Both bodies had a code cut into their tongues, connecting the two. Questions pop up. Is Neve’s secret past connected to these murders? Can Jess keep it together to solve the murders? Why is the basement door at Dullahan House locked and Neve won’t unlock it? What do the friendship bracelets mean when they are found?
McDonald creates relatable characters. Jess with her alcoholism is sympathetic and so is her partner Detective Will Casey who wants to help Jess but does everything by the book which puts the two in conflict. The author uses a playful but insightful device to show the close relationship between Neve and Ash, the game “Would You Rather.” For example, Neve to lighten the mood asks Ash, “Would you rather have a mullet or no toothpaste for the rest of your life?” Others are used to help adjust emotionally.
The hauntingly beautiful writing, both vivid and evocative, has a gothic sensibility. “The moon is sweet, creamy light finding me even amid the trees.” “I climb the narrow wooden stairs, rotting and cracking with age, and jiggle the key into the lock.”
And there’s Dullahan House. Early in the story, we are given its background. In Irish folklore, the Dullahan is a mythological headless horseman who was a harbinger of death. Dullahan represents a past that never dies and haunts the living. The story goes that the Dullahan rode past shortly before his child was found mysteriously drowned in the lake. Take this as a harbinger of what’s to come in the brilliant and mesmerizing THESE STILL BLACK WATERS.
Thank you to Christina McDonald & Thomas & Mercer for the gifted ARC provided through NetGalley for an honest review.
More Police Procedurals