“Sometimes being alone is best. It is safest, certainly. Alone and never touched.” So states Jessie Duval, the reluctant 19-year-old protagonist of R.J. Jacobs’ gripping psychological mystery thriller, Somewhere in the Dark. Her words are both profoundly sad and horrifying, and they immediately draw readers’ empathy to her plight.
Jessie has plenty of reasons to feel the way she does. Growing up in Nashville, she was kicked from foster home to foster home and spent a terrifying year held captive in a dark closet by an especially abusive set of foster parents. Jacobs slowly unreels Jessie’s harrowing ordeal, letting readers imagine the details left unsaid. Each revelation unwinds a bit more of her bleak past even as she attempts to regain control of her life in the present with the help of a caring therapist.
Now an adult with a job at a local catering company and her own apartment, Jessie is beginning to come out of her shell and live the life she was meant to, though she remains deeply shy and oddly obsessive. (For instance, she vacuums the carpet of her footprints before leaving her apartment for the day.)
She avoids social situations as much as possible and imagines the boyfriend she doesn’t have. “A boy who wants to see you, who waits for you,” she muses. “Who texts you, remembers your birthday, speaks to your family. A boy who occasionally leads you into darkness because he wants to put his hands on you. A boy you want to follow into the dark.”
Her only reliable companion during her year of imprisonment was a CD player and a lone CD by husband-and-wife singers Owen and Shelly James, which she played repeatedly in her dark closet cell. We learn how Jessie’s unhealthy obsession with the singers — “I wanted to believe the James family was perfect” — compels her now, years later, to follow them on their tour from city to city.
Her constant presence in the audience raises the suspicion of a Nashville police detective moonlighting as a security guard. After a fellow concertgoer is stabbed during a fracas, Jessie is slapped with a restraining order and warned to stay away from the Jameses or face up to 15 years in prison.
When one of the catering jobs brings her to the singers’ Belle Meade estate for a party, she initially tries to avoid going. The duo’s manager, though, insists she is welcome since Owen James feels some remorse for her past ordeal and hopes to make amends. “The chance to set everything right feels like a gift that is somehow also scary as hell,” Jessie thinks.
But when Shelly James is found at a nearby park brutally murdered, Jessie becomes an obvious suspect, and police seem all too happy to close the book on the high-profile crime as quickly as they can.
“This is the world now, I know,” Jessie tells herself. “I’m trapped again.”
Frightened by the prospect of being sent to jail, Jessie launches her own investigation. There are, it turns out, plenty of other suspects: from Shelly’s husband, Owen, to adopted daughter, Finch, to secret boyfriends new and old, as well as her manager. “Everybody’s in love with Shelly James,” Jessie observes.
Jacobs, a practicing psychologist since 2003 and who completed a post-doctoral residency at Vanderbilt, expertly draws on his knowledge of mental trauma here. As in his 2019 debut thriller, And Then You Were Gone, the result is a novel that draws readers in with its shocks and touches them deeply with its raw emotions and fully realized characters.
G. Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.
Tagged: Book Reviews