Quick Review: A MAP OF THE DARK by Karen Ellis (Mulholland)

EllisK-1-AMapOfTheDarkThe first novel in the Searchers series

A girl missing

A woman, searching

A killer, planning…

If you’re lost she’ll find you

But who will save her?

Elsa Myers is smart, determined, and gifted with an extraordinary ability to find missing children. When vulnerable teenager Ruby disappears from Queens, she is put on the case.

But Elsa’s skills are rooted in her own troubled past. She is haunted by her mother’s murder, her father is dying, and her relationship with her sister is crumbling. As the case begins to look hopeless, it becomes more and more personal, tangling with the traumatic history she has worked so hard to hide.

As the darkness gathers around her, Elsa has to make a choice: can she save Ruby, if it means losing herself?

A Map of the Dark is the first in an interesting new series from Karen Ellis that introduces us to Elsa Myers, an FBI agent struggling with her own inner demons. While this is a novel far more about the protagonist than it is the crime she and her colleagues are investigating, I enjoyed the novel, and I think the series has promise.

Myers is an interesting character, an FBI agent grappling with the deep emotional and physical scars of a childhood of abuse. Unusually, however, the abuser in her life was her mother. I found this an interesting, atypical approach to the subject — so often, thrillers are about male abusers (true, men dominate that abominable segment of the population). Ellis does a great job of showing a different kind of abuser, and how Myers’s relationship with her mother has influenced her work and relationships with others. In addition, she is navigating the rapid decline of her father, who was aware of the abuse but somewhat unable (or perhaps unwilling) to fully protect his daughters from his wife’s rages. We learn the full story of Elsa and her mother through a series of flashbacks. Myers has been ‘managing’ her issues through self-harm, which adds another interesting element to her character, and Ellis does a great job of weaving that into the story, and handles the issue deftly and lightly.

EllisK-S1-AMapOfTheDarkUKThe primary weakness of the novel, in my opinion, is that the two main threads of the story — that of the investigation revolving around the missing girls, and also Myers’s past traumas — aren’t woven together as well as they could have been. Both are quite interesting and well-written, however I think that Elsa’s background dominated the story in a way that didn’t really feel relevant to the main plot.

A Map of the Dark feels, in many ways, like the first episode in a new crime TV series: we’re primarily there to be introduced to the characters, and the investigation is just part of the background, a vehicle through which we are supposed to get to know the protagonist(s). I think I would have preferred a bit more on the investigation, which on occasion seemed to lurch or jump forward in a slightly artificial way.

Many crime/thriller fans may find the lack of investigative detail surprising — not that every FBI novel has to be a procedural, but I found the story lighter on the investigation than I would have expected and preferred. As a result of this imbalance, the tension was a little lacking, and I never got that feeling of foreboding that a great thriller can elicit. I did, however, appreciate that Ellis didn’t spend time in the killer’s head — so often, serial killer novels are grossly overindulgent, revelling in the twisted fantasies and/or psychoses inside the antagonist’s head. (The TV series Criminal Minds is particularly guilty of this.)

I think the series has a lot of promise: Myers has the potential to be a really interesting, engaging protagonist. Ellis does a very good job of laying some of the foundations for the series in this novel. With Myers’s character pretty well established in this first book, I’m eager to read where the series goes next.

So, a cautious recommendation. A Map of the Dark should appeal to fans of many different crime and thriller series. It is out now, published by Mulholland Books in the US and UK.

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