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The Novelist Who Came in From the Cults

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A Darker Place
By Laurie R. King
Bantam Books; 384 pages; $23.95

Laurie R. King finds 'A Darker Place' in her newest mystery

By Karen Reardanz

EVER SINCE Jim Jones convinced some 900 of his "children" to drink poison Kool-Aid in the '70s, cults have been the focus of endless fascination by the American public. We've seen cults in fact (will anyone ever forget the Waco compound?) and fiction. In her new novel, A Darker Place, Corralitos mystery writer Laurie R. King paints her own portrait of the disturbing psychology of religious cults--and does so with a hand that's powerfully understated and sublime.

A Darker Place plunges into the life of Anne Waverly, a university professor who specializes in alternative religious movements. But Waverly's expertise goes pages beyond textbook cases; her past is heavy with real-life experience in the subject. For close to two decades, she secretly worked on and off with the FBI infiltrating some harrowing and dangerous religious cults. Waverly helped the FBI not so much out of duty as out of a desperate and often futile need to atone for the tragedies of her past: Waverly's husband and daughter were killed after she took them to a commune and abandoned them there, and she was once party to an FBI case that went horribly wrong.

It is through glimpses of her past that we see how Waverly has been shaped by her history. Once close to dead on the inside, Waverly has settled into normality and even found a measure of personal peace. But the FBI once again comes knocking, asking her to infiltrate Change, a compound in Sedona, Ariz., and Waverly is forced once again to stare down her demons.

King is no stranger to mystery. Over the past six years, she has delved into the form with much critical and popular acclaim, whether through the drama of police work, in her Kate Martinelli detective series, or psychological history, with her books featuring Mary Russell, the partner and one-time apprentice of Sherlock Holmes. But in A Darker Place, her eighth novel, King wanders into deeply disturbing, often haunting waters, turning a genre piece into a structured, literate tale of redemption and rebirth.

Ultimately, A Darker Place is the story of a personal journey, one haunted by the past, that just happens to be centered in the psychologically complex world of alternative religion and cults. After finding such horror and suffering in them in her past, it is fitting that Anne Waverly should find her redemption there as well.

WAVERLY--or Ana Wakefield, as Anne becomes on her Arizona FBI assignment--is a captivating protagonist, at once ferocious and kind, compassionate and bitter. She carries the weight of her past with her at all times, and the tone of A Darker Place is dark and heavy with sadness.

Waverly is in a way similar to the people she's out to save; there's a part of her that's searching for a safety zone, a way to stop the endless cycle of guilt and sorrow she feels for past transgressions. It is this emptiness, this willingness and need to part with her past and reality, that lets Waverly so easily adapt to her new cult environments.

This is one fault with A Darker Place, though. Waverly manages not only to gain admittance to Change with barely any effort, but also to earn the trust of the leaders and many of the key players within the compound too easily. True, Waverly is a highly skilled professional, but at times she almost seems too perfect. The wily and suspicious cult leaders King portrays would be able to smell her as narc before she stepped through the door.

But A Darker Place is neither formulaic nor predictable, and it is written with an intelligence so welcome and yet so often missing in this age of the John Grisham mystery. King spans subjects as vast and varied as world religions, alchemy, scripture and auto repair with a tone not cerebral but understated and poetic.

Yes, King is a mystery writer, but A Darker Place is a character-driven novel of complexity and layers. The suspense is almost less about who or what is behind the Change family than what will happen to Anne Waverly. She is the joy and sorrow of A Darker Place, this middle-aged professor with a Volkswagen bus, a bad haircut and an inexhaustible drive for truth. As her dual lives become one, as she sheds one for the other, even though it could kill her, and as she reconnects with life and love, A Darker Place becomes more than a page-turner. It becomes an engagingly emotional thriller.

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From the February 24-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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