We Are All the Same in the Dark
Mysteries set in small Southern towns specialize in stripping away the idyllic image of sunshine-laden streets filled with scenes of saccharine sweetness, and showing the dark, eerie underbelly of betrayal and murder that lie beneath. We Are All the Same in the Dark is an excellent example of this sub-genre.
One night changed their lives. Odette Tucker was supposed to hang out with Wyatt Branson and his sister Tru (Trumanell) that evening at their home but she got turned away at the door. Convinced they were being held hostage by their abusive father, she leaves the house deeply distressed only to wind up in a devastating car accident. When the sun rises the next day, Odette is missing a leg, Wyatt is missing his memories and Tru and her father are just flat out missing.
Several years and a stint in a mental hospital later, Wyatt is still the number one suspect in the eyes of the townspeople for whatever crime was committed that night. So when he sees a lost girl lying in a field surrounded by a ring of dandelions, he almost keeps driving. Being seen with a female adolescent by anyone in the community will only land him in trouble with the authorities, but his conscience won’t let him leave her lying helpless by the side of the road. He brings her home with him and within hours the police are at his door.
Odette hadn’t planned on being a cop like her late father, grandfather and great-grandfather but somehow she wound up wearing the blue and badge anyway. When the call comes in that someone saw Wyatt drive home with a strange girl, she heads straight to his place. Like her dad, she believes Wyatt is innocent – but she is the only person on the force who does.
When Odette sees the mute, one-eyed mystery girl lying on Wyatt’s couch, she knows Wyatt will be imprisoned or killed by vigilante justice if she doesn’t deal with the situation quickly and quietly. Tru’s disappearance was the subject of a recent documentary and half the country is now convinced Wyatt is a serial killer, a man who has used his job as a trucker to scour the highways for lost young women whom he ensures never make it home. They decide to call the girl Angel since she refuses to tell them her name, and Odette sneaks her over to her cousin Maggie’s place. Maggie runs a sort of unofficial foster home, taking in the human strays that Odette finds wandering through their town. This isn’t the first time a mysterious young lady has landed in her living room – but it will be the last.
This is a slow burn mystery, with a gothic feel. While typically a gothic revolves around a building of some kind, in this case it is the town itself which gives off the creepy, eerie vibe. There is a barely suppressed sense of violence and menace to the denizens of the community, an aura of unrest, and simmering savagery that is prevalent in the people of the area.
Odette is the calm in this storm but her layer of serenity is being slowly eroded by the anger that surrounds her and the strain of keeping Wyatt safe. She’s an interesting mix of strong, damaged and vulnerable. She’s made up for the loss of her leg with physical strength but remains deeply aware that nothing can completely compensate for this weakness in her defenses. She also knows that wasn’t the greatest injury she suffered that night. Her hope for the future, joy in life and trust in humanity were the real casualties. Wyatt is the epicenter for this loss. She has no new evidence for the case and no matter how often she looks at the files, no other possible suspects present themselves. Her father had been first on the scene and had assured Odette the facts acquitted Wyatt, but everyone else remains convinced of his guilt. She feels exhausted and alienated from those around her as she tries to protect this man who is too mentally damaged to protect himself, and finds herself as lost and perplexed in her search for answers to Angel’s problems as she is in searching to discover the truth about the missing Tru.
The story is told primarily from Odette’s point of view but we also see things from the perspectives of Wyatt and Angel. This gives us a more comprehensive view of the events taking place, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the narrative. And what I mean by immersion is actually confusion. Angel makes a poor narrator initially, since she tends to be more cryptic than enlightening. That situation isn’t alleviated until at least forty percent into the book. Wyatt is unreliable due to mental illness. Odette simply doesn’t know anything, and the mysteries she so desperately wants to solve are complicated simply because the people who hold the secrets that explain everything want to keep them secret. In most mysteries we are fed crumbs we’re meant to follow on our way to the solution, but that doesn’t really happen here. In this case, the crumbs blew away a long time ago and all that remains are an unholy thirst for revenge on the part of the local residents, and Odette’s desire for truth.
Odette’s fatigue and the demoralized perplexity she feels regarding Wyatt and Angel lend the text a lethargic, almost sluggish ambience at the start of the book. It isn’t until we reach the halfway mark that the narrative pacing starts to match that of a typical mystery. Since the book is billed as a thriller, I initially struggled with the languorous nature of the prose. Fortunately, the second half of the story, told from Angel’s point of view, picks up speed and provides the missing sense of immediate menace that the first portion lacks. It turned what had been an almost literary style of mystery into a page turner and provided a very satisfying ending.
Ms. Heaberlin is an excellent wordsmith who captures perfectly the sense of a town on the edge of implosion, a tired justice warrior, and the expertly drawn cast of disturbing but intriguing supporting characters who make We Are All the Same in the Dark an interesting look at the ominous currents that lie below the surface of any human gathering. I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys small town Southern mysteries.