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Review: Author keeps tension high in `Trace of Evil'

This cover image released by Minotaur shows "Trace of Evil," a novel by Alice Blanchard. (Minotaur via AP)
This cover image released by Minotaur shows "Trace of Evil," a novel by Alice Blanchard. (Minotaur via AP)

“Trace of Evil” by Alice Blanchard (Minotaur)

Witchcraft—both historical and current—becomes a gripping metaphor for how violence can continue to permeate a community for decades in this intricately plotted launch of a new series. In her sixth novel, Alice Blanchard masterfully weaves in history and contemporary issues as she explores how the tragedy of a community and a family are intertwined.

The rural community of Burning Lake in upstate New York thrives on its tourist trade, as visitors come to see where centuries ago several young women accused of being witches were publicly executed. Many of the town’s residents are uneasy that acts of violence have provided a steady income.

Rookie Detective Natalie Lockhart knows all too well about a family tragedy—about 20 years ago her older sister, Willow, was murdered by a local teenager who is still in prison. Willow’s murder is never far from Natalie’s mind, nor that of her surviving sister Grace, the single mother of 15-year-old Ellie.

But the lore of violence also appeals to a group of high school girls who form a “coven,” complete with seances in the woods, death spells and poppet dolls buried in backyards to explore the dark side of Wicca. Of course, these curses aren’t real, more of a game for these girls; the coven is a way for them to feel as if they belong. Natalie understand their motives—in high school she also dabbled with studying witchcraft until it scared her, but she now worries that her niece may be drawn to the dark side.

The murder of popular schoolteacher Daisy Buckner has Natalie wondering if the someone took the witchcraft game too far. But the investigation is stymied because the main suspect, the teenage son of a local drug kingpin, is in a coma. The case is personal to Natalie—she knew Daisy quite well as being the wife of a fellow cop and Grace’s closest friend. As she and the small Burning Lake police force investigate Daisy’s murder, Natalie also continues to look into the disappearance of nine transients who vanished throughout the years.

Blanchard keeps the tension high in “Trace of Evil,” balancing the plot between the police investigation and Natalie’s own family drama. Blanchard’s view of a small town excels. Here, people may think they know every detail of their neighbors’ lives, but secrets still can be kept.

The well-sculpted Natalie quickly proves herself to be an intelligent and a shrewd investigator guided by compassion for her community and love of her family. Her relationship with her fellow officers, especially a growing affection for one of her colleagues, elevates “Trace of Evil.”

Readers will welcome a return to Burning Lake with Natalie at the helm.