Trouble follows Lana Granger.
Her mother died violently when she was a child, and her father is on death row. She's tried to escape her past by changing her identity and moving from her family's Florida home to a small college in upstate New York, but first another student disappears (after people see her arguing with Lana) and is later found dead. Now the young boy Lana was hired to babysit is showing signs of being a budding psychopath — and her wild-child roommate has gone missing.
What is a girl to do?
Lisa Unger's In the Blood will make you want to know. Unger, a bestselling thriller author who makes her home in Clearwater, has always had a deft touch with tales of deep secrets and hidden identities, but In the Blood may be her best one yet.
For its setting, she returns to the Hollows, the remote small town surrounded by spooky woods where her recent novels Darkness, My Old Friend and Fragile were set. Jones Cooper, the law officer turned private detective who was the main character in those books, makes a cameo appearance in this one. His wife, Dr. Maggie Cooper, plays a larger role as Lana's therapist.
But it's Lana, with her compelling first-person narration, who dominates In the Blood. It begins with a nightmarish scene from her childhood, in which she remembers hiding beneath a bed and hearing angry voices arguing the night her mother died. Exactly what happened that night is one of the book's central mysteries, even to her — between the trauma she suffered then and the psychotropic drugs she takes now, her memory is ragged and untrustworthy, and she knows it.
She also knows that her parents' relationship is the reason she is so emotionally withdrawn. Their wedding portrait tells the tale: "In it my mother is a vision of loveliness with her blond hair pulled back tight and crowned with white roses, her blue eyes shining. My father is her contrast, his dark hair long and wild, his black eyes intense and staring. The look of love on their faces, so passionate, so desirous, so joyful — it was almost an embarrassment to behold. They went from that day of ice-cream-white love to a day that ended with my mother lying in a pool of her own ink-black blood."
So Lana avoids emotional entanglements (and so far sex as well) and devotes herself to her studies. She's exceptionally bright and analytical of herself and others, but she has learned to make some friends, notably that roommate. Rebecca, called Beck, is as dramatic and impetuous as Lana is cool and logical, as romantic as Lana is self-contained. But they've bonded, and when Beck disappears it turns Lana's world upside down.
When it happens, she's already struggling with the job she has taken on at the behest of her aunt, who is her guardian. Do something besides study, her aunt urges, reach out to other people. So Lana applies for the first thing that comes along, an after-school baby-sitting gig caring for Luke Kahn, an 11-year-old whose behavior is described as "appalling" by his mother, Rachel, with whom Lana feels an immediate bond.
Rachel wasn't kidding, but Lana sees the kid as a challenge, their relationship as a game. She confides in her academic advisor, psychology professor Langdon Hewes, who offers her rather more support than might be appropriate.
As the search for Beck becomes a media circus, Luke chillingly raises the stakes on their game. Lana has something else to fear as the investigation continues — the revelation of her true identity. "It couldn't help but be discovered; it was too raw, too sensational, it would sell too many newspapers, magazines, and TV ads. Because that's what it's all about now. We are a junk culture of voyeurs, planted in front of our televisions watching the worst and most wretched people make disasters out of their lives."
Despite her dark past, Lana is an engaging narrator — even while she keeps her secrets from the reader. And who is the book's other narrator, the woman whose diary, another story of a deeply troubled child and a disintegrating marriage, is interspersed with Lana's own recounting?
Unger keeps the shocks and twists coming at a breakneck pace. No one in the novel is who he or she seems; the question is, as Lana says, "Is the prey complicit in its own demise? Are we not seduced in some small way by the beauty, the grace, even the dangerous soul of the predator?"
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.