THE VERY WORST place to read a mystery novel, I know now, is on the New York City Subway. It was on my morning and evening commute to and from Brooklyn that I began reading Dark Rooms, Lili Anolik’s debut novel. Immersing myself in the whodunit thriller on the L train presented two problems: I was forced to endure a heavy-breathing hedge fund analyst pressed against my back on the crowded subway car and reading over my shoulder for 20 minutes — only to have him ask at the end of the ride if I could kindly tell him where to find the book. And worse, with every page, suspense building, I wanted nothing else but to be in bed, far from distractions, noise, and other humans — so I could truly focus on the haunting and muddled details of this teenage murder.
The book begins with two deaths. Nica Baker — an enigmatic 16-year-old, wildly popular with the boys and the men (and the occasional girl) in her life, promiscuous, and fearless — is found blood-soaked and broken in a cemetery near her home. Manny Flores, a closeted gay student in her class, is discovered hanging in his bedroom, just days after Nica’s death. He leaves a suicide note behind, apologizing for murder: just murder, not the murder, not Nica’s murder. The conveniently timed sequence of death, death, and confessional note leaves the claustrophobic New England prep school community neatly naming Manny as Nica’s killer and calling off the investigation. But to Nica’s older sister, Grace, our unreliable narrator, Manny’s motive for shooting Nica doesn’t add up; the fact that her sister was raped before her death doesn’t check out, either. Seventeen-year-old Grace goes on to unveil, through a frustrating (and yet, satiating) series of vigilante investigations, snap judgments, and elegiac conversations, the truth behind her sister’s murder.
It would be easy to say Dark Rooms is Anolik’s attempt to replicate the successful formulas of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: beginning with a small town crime and working backwards. But it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. While, admittedly, these authors share a knack for developing a quiet eeriness, offset by the occasional lazy cliché — the beautiful victim in Dark Rooms was, of course, “named homecoming queen” before her death — Anolik’s writing presents something new: a fresh, composed tone that is anything but indulgent. There are very few, if any, gratuitous moments of shock or gore, as seen in most mainstream thrillers; even the description of Nica’s body after death is told in a factual, almost emotionless way. Anolik digresses only into back stories that are relevant to the immediate crime at hand, because it takes time to unfold this thriller. Every question, I had to remind myself, will be answered, and every question was. She holds no detail back — no secret left under the floorboards, no motive soaking in lukewarm water — and yet, the story’s suspense is not affected by the transparency of the case. You’d imagine that the tension, once the truth is revealed, would evaporate — but it doesn’t, because there is something so sinister in her plot twists that you can’t possibly predict, even in your most disturbed state of mind, what will happen. Anolik reminds the reader, page after page, that even those presumed innocent are capable of unforgivable acts.
The killer could be any one of 14 characters. Grace’s suspect list includes everyone from Nica’s mother, father, best friend, boyfriend, and lover to her teacher, her teacher’s wife, one of her classmates, and so on. It’s a hunt like the one in the recent Serial podcast, in that every lead seems to fall short; there is always some detail that leads Grace astray, causing her to ignore the crimes occurring in the wake of her sister’s death — a rape, a suicide, an infidelity. Anolik has us shamelessly sifting through thick, murky, knee-high water for most of the novel, and there’s a sick pleasure in being wrapped up in the confusion. There’s charm in the innocent voice of the narrator, and there’s seduction in her naïveté, in her fickleness. We learn about Nica’s skeletons as Grace does. We change our mind as she changes hers — which is often — and we share shock and torment with Grace, as if Nica belonged to us as well. At more than one point in the novel, Grace gives up the hunt. She becomes so disenchanted with her sister that she tires of her mission:
I’m not thinking of Nica every other second now. And when I do think of her, I think of her differently. Fucking a couple of guys, if not at once, in awfully close proximity. And not just fucking them, but fucking them up, too, making them fall in love with her, then dumping them without cause or explanation, leaving them heartbroken, confused, angry. So maybe her death was a kind of karmic justice, a case of reaping what you sow. And yes, I realize she was as sinned against as sinning. Mom messed her up. She got a raw deal there, no question. But how much blame can you lay on other people? When does personal responsibility kick in? In any event, I’m done. I don’t care anymore. I can’t.
At no point in the novel does Anolik allow us to forget that Grace is 17 years old — and a young 17, too. She’s wordy, she’s confused, and she has the tenacity of a small child, which comes and goes in waves. She trudges along until the truth pours out, I think, not because she wants to avenge her sister, but because she is trying to find relevance, her purpose. If she can decode Nica’s complicated life, she can do the same for her own. Most teenagers dye their hair, pierce their navels, date older men, or drink with the “wrong crowd” — but Grace delves into the dark, dark depths of human behavior. In this way, Dark Rooms is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a chilling mystery.
In the second chapter of the novel, Grace quotes Edgar Allan Poe. In his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” he stated that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” And Nica, as her sister would explain, was undeniably beautiful. She was also innocent, in years if not in actions, and not only died but was murdered and sexually assaulted. Everyone’s favorite set of lurid extremes — sex and death, Eros and Thanatos — are delivered to us in a tightly packaged yet fragile portrayal of growing up, of lying, and of coping. The story’s foundation, as Poe suggests, is delicious, but it is also a meal that has us asking for a second serving. Take, for instance, the moment Grace uncovers a stack of images her mother, a photographer, took the morning she found her youngest daughter — her muse — in a pool of blood:
I let the photos flutter to the floor, wait for my brain to make the necessary connections. After a minute or so it does: dead girls don’t twitch, therefore Nica wasn’t dead when Mom took the photos, not all the way, at least; If Mom had run home for the phone rather than her camera, Nica might still be alive; Nica had died once, but been killed twice.
In this moment, we’re overcome with uneasiness as Anolik showcases our human fascination with death and our obsession with glamorizing lost beauty. Perhaps it’s not the crime itself but the result of the crime, the twisted method of coping from those closest to the victim, that is most haunting — and intoxicating.
Dark Rooms warrants an urgency that I haven’t experienced since reading Nancy Drew in elementary school. It had me pining for more explanations, more dialogue, more, more, more, in a way that I don’t tend to experience often as an adult. In many ways, Anolik’s writing mirrors the disposition of Nica, her teenage Mona Lisa — a girl who teases and flirts with her suitors from a distance, until they are left obsessed and empty-handed. Simply put, Anolik brilliantly strings us along — which is what makes her first novel so rewarding to read, and so upsetting to finish.
Alyssa Reeder is a writer and editor living in New York City. She has contributed to Vanity Fair, Vice, and Vogue, among others.