Most of Lisa Unger's bestselling thrillers, such as last year's Die for You, have had urban settings, but in Fragile she explores the dark and haunted side of small-town life.
The Hollows is a pretty little place in New York state, a quick train ride and a world away from Manhattan. It has charming neighborhoods and a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, and their parents and their kids — which is both a good thing and, sometimes, a very, very bad one.
The novel's center is the Cooper family. Jones Cooper is a former high school golden boy, now a detective on the town's police force. His wife, Maggie, left for a few years to get her degree but returned to the Hollows to marry Jones and set up her psychology practice. Their teenage son, Ricky, is rebellious in the standard-issue manner — punky clothes, pierced nose, questionable girlfriend — but bright and basically a good kid.
Even Maggie's cantankerous, demanding mother thinks so. Elizabeth Monroe is retired after a long career as the principal of the local high school, and she knows teenagers (and pretty much everything else).
But Maggie worries about her son, and she worries about another teenager who's one of her patients. Marshall Crosby is also a bright boy, but he's faring badly in school and showing signs of having the same kind of violent, uncontrollable temper as his father, Travis, who was booted from the police force after a DUI arrest.
All those worries heat up when that questionable girlfriend of Ricky's goes missing. Charlene affects the same punk-rock edginess, but Maggie thinks of her as "a little girl lost, hiding behind a mask of black eyeliner and vamp red lipstick." When she disappears — after breaking up with Ricky — she might just be a runaway, bound for the clubs in the city she's been sneaking off to when her mother isn't looking.
But Jones, usually a cool head, goes into overdrive as soon as he hears she has vanished, pushing the investigation hard. And Melody, Charlene's mother, is frantic with worry about her daughter — although she doesn't seem concerned that her slacker husband, Graham (who's Charlene's stepfather), has gone off the grid on a hunting trip.
Maggie assumes that one factor driving Jones' and Melody's reactions is a piece of the Hollows' history. Years before, when all three of them were in high school, another girl disappeared.
Sarah Meyer, a quiet kid but a musical prodigy, left school on foot one afternoon but never got home. Her body was found the next day under a bridge, sexually assaulted and horribly mutilated. A workman at the school was arrested and confessed to her murder, but the crime is still shrouded in mystery and fear.
As the search for Charlene escalates, the memory of Sarah's death pushes into the present and begins to peel away layers of denial and secrecy among even the most unlikely people.
Unger, who lives in Clearwater, skillfully builds suspense by alternating point of view from chapter to chapter among Maggie, Marshall, Elizabeth and other characters. She also slowly reveals what happened to Jones, Melody and Travis on the day Sarah disappeared, and how those events continue to affect them — and their kids.
Too many thrillers rely on coincidence or outlandish twists to connect the dots in a crime investigation, but Unger makes that process organic by using the interconnectedness of her characters' lives over the decades — these people really do know each others' secrets. Even apparently unrelated threads — like the chapters about the exterminator called in to trap the raccoons in Elizabeth's attic — are cleverly woven into the plot.
Unger is also adept at drawing believable characters and relationships. Much of the emotional weight and considerable tension of Fragile have to do with families, with how parents and their children relate (or don't) and how husbands and wives can think they know everything about each other — and then find themselves surprised.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.