I haven’t read much YA suspense, but Dark Roads is a novel that reads like a young adult mystery. The youthful protagonists provide a unique perspective into a series of crimes that target teenage girls and highlight how it feels for those young women to know that the adults around them offer no protection against the horror that may befall them.
It has been just her dad and her for as long as Hailey McBride can remember. They’ve loved living in Cold Creek, a small town in British Columbia, and making the rugged wilderness that surrounds their small village as much a home as their house. Hailey has spent more time in the woods than at school, her father a strong believer that practical skills far outweigh the value of book learning. Which doesn’t mean Hailey’s a bad student, just not an enthusiastic one regarding academic subjects. But nature? She’s eagerly sopped up the lessons her dad has given her on how to live on and survive off the land.
His death is devastating for her, and Hailey’s subsequent move to her Aunt Lana’s house does not go well. Her father had given the seventeen-year-old Hailey a lot of freedom, and Lana’s husband Vaughn, a cop, is the exact opposite. He micromanages Hailey, bullies her and insists on knowing where she is every hour of the day. He hates her friends, especially Jonny, a dirt track biker with whom she has been best buds since they were in elementary school. Hailey’s only ‘freedom’ is grabbing the occasional burger at the local diner where her crush Amber works as a waitress. Hoping to earn some money and spend more time with her lady love, Hailey applies for a position there. The owner is a family friend but even he is cowed by Vaughn and refuses to give Hailey a job when Vaughn makes it clear he doesn’t want her to have one.
Desperate to regain her autonomy, Hailey breaks into Vaughn’s ‘man cave’/shed in his backyard in hopes of finding some blackmail material to use against him. What she finds there has her fleeing into the mountains in a determined attempt to save her own life.
Beth Chevalier arrives in Cold Creek one year later. Her sister Amber had worked as a waitress in the local diner there for several months before she had become yet another casualty of the prolific Cold Creek Highway Killer. It feels as though the murderer claimed three victims with just one blow – not just Amber, but also her girlfriend Hailey, who had gone missing just before Amber — and Beth as well. There was a search for the butcher who had taken Amber’s life after the discovery of her body, but there were no clues, no leads, no witnesses. The lack of closure caused Beth to fail out of law school, lose her job and her apartment and take to the road in search of answers.
Beth’s arrival in Cold Creek causes quite the stir, especially since she assumes Amber’s former position as waitress at the local diner. Sergeant Vaughn, head of local law enforcement, appoints himself her unwanted protector. He hovers, a fact Beth very much doesn’t appreciate. Vaughn also advises her against befriending pretty much anyone, especially Jonny, whom he claims may be responsible for the disappearance of Amber and Hailey. But Beth is determined to get answers to exactly what happened, even if it kills her.
This novel is very similar to numerous suspense tales on the market today, and the plot of a women looking for her best friend’s/cousin’s/sister’s killer is a pretty popular one in the genre. I read two just last month. Beth, as is common for these heroines, is haunted by the crime and can’t really move on with her life until she can figure out what has happened. As is also trendy right now, Beth is kind of a screw up. As mentioned, she imploded her former life and, in the present, she drinks excessively, and pops pills even as she is aware of being the probable target of the maniac she has come to hunt.
Hailey is another iteration of a growing fashion in the category, a character I call ‘nature girl’. Nature girl loves to hunt, fish, trek through the woods and live off the land. It is these factors that save her when all hell breaks loose in her life. I’ve read several versions of this individual recently as well.
What is different about both of them from the standard is their age. Beth and Hailey are young and have the average maturity level of teen/new adult girls who have led fairly sheltered lives. Hailey, due to her survivalist skills, is strong and tough and Beth is resilient, but they are inexperienced sleuths, and it shows throughout the story. They can identify some dangerous jerks when they meet them, but they also befriend far more dangerous people or ignore clues a cleverer detective would pick up. While this could be irritating in terms of the mystery, the positive aspect of this vulnerability is that it helps to create a greater sense of empathy for the victims of the highway killer. We are reminded that these are young girls, happy to be alive and just discovering the world around them. If they are partying or being frivolous it isn’t because they deserve to die due to a dangerous lifestyle (which is sometimes said when these things occur) but because they have a right to enjoy their youth.
The mystery is nicely layered. We may think we know what is happening, our protagonists might think they know what is going on, but we are all of us in for a big surprise.
In spite of the things I liked though, a few factors kept me from grading the book more highly. In real life, near misses are natural and such acts of grace keep the human species from being obliterated. Too many of them in a work of fiction, however, can read like deus ex machina and that happens here. Additionally, Hailey is more than a little selfish. I get that she’s young, but she seems completely incapable of thinking of another’s wants and needs (except for her dog), and she places friends in bad positions numerous times as a result of this.
Another factor I found difficult was the survivalist aspect of the tale. Hailey runs to the rugged wilderness of the nearby mountains for safety, and we spend pages and pages learning all she does just to stay alive. I found it a real slog to read through that.
The current adult suspense market favors intense books with tangled plots, and a chilling, disturbing atmosphere with an emphasis on the devious depths and depravity of the human mind. Dark Roads doesn’t fit that description and I wonder if the young stars might not be a turn off for those used to a slightly more mature and jaded protagonist. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries rather than suspense and who enjoy (or at least don’t mind) YA reads. Anyone who prefers darker, edgier thrillers should probably give it a miss.