The opening scenes of Phillip Finch's novel "In a Place Dark and Secret" are chillingly ominous, instantly whetting the reader's appetite for the promised suspense to follow. Joseph Sherk is waiting on a hill behind his Appalachian cabin for his teen-age daughter Margaret, whittling a branch with a razor-sharp buck knife. "He felt the fire rising. He called it that because it felt white hot, like a cleansing flame that roared within him until it had burned everything, and he was empty inside. Empty and pure and clean."
When Margaret returns home from swimming with some boys, her father beats her for being "a bad girl," even though he had allowed her to go that morning. Afterward -- it's not the first time he's beaten her -- he kneels down and asks Jesus to "let us be good."
Later, after he's gone to work, Sherk is told his daughter has been killed in a fire in the cabin. But then she appears to him, or so he imagines, asking him to go to her. So, after nearly killing a man who tries to persuade him Margaret is indeed dead, Sherk sets out to find his daughter.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, 15-year-old Sarah Stannard is preparing to move to Annapolis with her mother, after her father's sudden death. "He was the best father, Sarah thought. The best ever. She still needed him, and she didn't know what she was going to do without him."
From this beginning we are certain Sherk is going to cross paths with Sarah, who, incidentally, is a dead ringer for Margaret. We also strongly suspect he will try to regain his lost daughter in some way that involves Sarah. Given the recent loss of her father, Sarah's inevitable meeting with Sherk sets up the possibility of an enormously complex psychological relationship, perhaps in some dark and secret place in the mind, considering the novel's title. Clearly, the author carefully creates a situation with great potential for personal drama that goes well beyond the scope of the typical suspense thriller.
Unfortunately, that potential goes largely unrealized. The novel doesn't even work on the what-will-happen-next level, since what we expect to occur is exactly what does: Sherk eventually kidnaps Sarah and confines her in a tiny room, and she gradually loses perspective and calls him "daddy."
These events, which should be moving and disturbing, simply aren't. One reason is that since we anticipate them, they have no surprise value. More important is that Sarah and Sherk, as well as their relationship, aren't sufficiently developed by Finch to make us really care about them. Neither character is particularly compelling, and neither changes or grows in any meaningful way. Sherk is mentally unbalanced from start to finish -- a condition the author never explains or fully exploits -- which makes him scary but one-dimensional. Sarah, for her part, is basically an ordinary teen-ager, and the sympathy she evokes derives from having lost her father and being kidnaped rather than from any admirable qualities she possesses.
As for Sarah's relationship with her abductor, Finch develops it to the point where she accepts Sherk as her own father convincingly enough, but he then fails to take it any further. Even this identity confusion -- the only dimension of this relationship that Finch flushes out, neglecting myriad other possibilities -- carries no significant implications and produces no revelations.
By contrast, in a novel dealing with a somewhat similar kidnaping, "The Collector," John Fowles explores countless aspects and nuances of Clegg's surprisingly dynamic, multifaceted relationship with his captive, Miranda. These probings yield a rich variety of insights into human nature, which, more than any other single factor, makes "The Collector" such a powerful novel.
On the positive side, Finch does provide a tense conclusion to his novel, evidently his first in the suspense genre after several previous books, both fiction and nonfiction. And he succeeds in bringing two characters to life: Sarah's mother, who struggles to cope with the horror of not knowing where her daughter is, or even whether she's alive, and the Annapolis policeman who involves himself in the case and in comforting Mrs. Stannard.
Finch also effectively captures the flavor of Annapolis, from the harbor's "carefree informality of a carnival" with tourists browsing in its boutiques and galleries, to the stately, quiet charm of the nearby residential neighborhoods, with their cobblestone streets, huge oaks and ivy, and iron bootscrapers at the front doors of old brick colonials.
But these achievements are hardly enough to save "In a Place Dark and Secret" from coming off as yet another book that aims to be a suspense novel and something loftier at the same time, and ends up succeeding as neither.