Paula McLain’s “When the Stars Go Dark” is a tragic novel written with grace and hope. (Author photo courtesy Melanie Acevedo)

Paula McLain’s “When the Stars Go Dark” is a tragic novel written with grace and hope. (Author photo courtesy Melanie Acevedo)

SFPD detective at center of sensitive novel ‘When the Stars Go Dark’

Paula McLain’s latest is an astute thriller

Paula McLain’s new novel “When the Stars Go Dark” is an inspired psychological thriller. The mystery revolves around the abduction of a young girl and a woman detective obsessed with finding her. Though the story pursues the question of whodunit, McLain is especially interested in the why of the crime. The fast-paced narrative is enriched with insights about trauma, foster care, forgiveness, returning home, and redemption.

Anna Hart is a seasoned San Francisco Police Department detective consumed by her work. She investigates sex crimes and crimes against children. Though brave and bold, she is burdened by her past. When Anna was 8, her mother died of a heroin overdose. Her father was away in prison. After a dozen foster homes, Anna’s luck improved when she turned 10 and was placed with a wise older couple, Hap and Eden Strater. They lived in the small village of Mendocino on the rugged California coast. In Mendocino, Anna had spent the happiest years of her otherwise harrowing childhood. Hap and Eden’s love built Anna’s confidence and lessened her sorrow. They also cultivated in her a reverence for the healing power of the nearby forests.

Unfortunately, tragedy finds Anna again as an adult. This new tragedy is a mystery until the end of the book. But we do know it strains her marriage. Anna’s husband seeks a separation. Devastated, Anna returns to Mendocino. But returning to Mendocino does not provide the respite Anna expects. She learns that a 15-year-old girl named Cameron Curtis is missing. Soon Anna is working on the case. Cameron’s disappearance has eerie echoes of the disappearance of Anna’s high school friend Jenny Ledford, two decades before when Anna lived in Mendocino. That unsolved crime still haunts the community. Anna becomes obsessed with finding Cameron.

The plot twists and turns as Anna interviews Cameron’s family, friends and associates for clues and motives. The novel’s suspense is heightened by references to the terrifying string of sexual assaults and snatchings that traumatized the Bay Area at that time. Most notorious was the abduction of Polly Klaas, who was taken from her Petaluma home in 1993.

Though the kidnapping of young girls is a disturbing topic, the novel, while heavy, is not gruesome. Instead, the narrative focuses on Anna’s efforts to understand Cameron’s inner thoughts and the psychology of the suspects who might be responsible for Cameron’s disappearance. Anna wonders why predators become predators and why victims become victims. Not simple questions. But Anna believes that in some cases, predators and victims can share unconscious communication, like an invisible signal. In addition, her experiences as a detective had revealed that shame and self-loathing can make some victims feel unworthy of love and vulnerable to dangerous predators.

Anna’s foster parents Hap and Eden taught her the skills needed to navigate nature. These lessons serve Anna well, as she solves the mystery of Cameron’s disappearance in the gripping final chapters. Fortunately, she also comes to a greater understanding of her own grief and sadness with the help of a memorable psychic.

In her author’s note at the end of the novel, McLain shares that she spent her childhood in foster care and is a survivor of sexual abuse. The novel’s insight and intensity no doubt stem from this truth. “When the Stars Go Dark” is beautifully written and psychologically astute. McLain has created a riveting story that illuminates a tragic subject with wisdom, grace and even hope.

Katherine Read blogs about books at


When the Stars Go Dark: A Novel

Written by: Paula McLain

Published by: Penguin Random House

Pages: 384

Price: $28

Note: McLain appears in various online events in May; visit details.


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