Set in a small town obsessed with the occult, Trace of Evil by Alice Blanchard launches a promising new series and delivers an airtight police procedural with deeply macabre elements. This is a read-in-one-sitting book that will refresh readers who are potentially burned out on the genre.
With a Salem-esque history of killing suspected witches, the spooky little town of Burning Lake, New York, has turned its link to the dark arts into a tourist attraction. When a high school teacher is stabbed to death, homicide detective Natalie Lockhart turns her attention to a disaffected student who might have ties to a coven of teen witches. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, Natalie is also working on a cold case of nine Burning Lake residents who went missing over the years, with only strange graffiti and creepy fetishes made of dead birds left behind.
While Trace of Evil utilizes paranormal themes like witchcraft, it remains firmly grounded in reality, never crossing the line into a supernatural thriller. What we get instead is a procedural that expertly balances three mysteries at one time with tight plotting and enough clues and red herrings to keep the most experienced of mystery readers conjuring up theory after theory. And truly, Blanchard doesn’t need to utilize the supernatural to make her novel chilling. From the deeply disturbing aspects of the nine disappearances to the teenage obsession with witchcraft (I remember my own love of The Craft at a similar age), the terror here is tied to people who feel so detached from the world around them that they normalize horrifying violence.
Adding to the perfectly executed mysteries and the real-world terror is Blanchard’s careful world building. This is the first book starring Natalie Lockhart, but she appears on the page like a friend readers have known forever. She is the lens through which we view her small town, and she adds an element of empathy to characters who might otherwise feel unsympathetic to the reader. Then there’s the frisson of forbidden sexual tension between Natalie and her boss, a subplot that promises to unwind later in the series. It may seem like a lot to balance within one novel, but Trace of Evil delivers all of these elements without a single misstep.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Alice Blanchard about Trace of Evil.