In Mary McGarry Morris’s eighth novel, “Light From a Distant Star,” a pit bull is killed by a blow to the head, a small child is tied to a tree and abandoned, a cross-dressing paranoiac gets pelted with candy bars and a stripper ends up bludgeoned to death in a rental apartment. Considering this cascade of four-alarm events, it’s surprising, and unfortunate, that the first half of the novel reads like a long, drowsy summer vacation, the kind where the most exciting thing that happens is the eventual first day of school.
The problem is that Morris, whose previous books include the mega-selling “Songs in Ordinary Time” and the National Book Award finalist “Vanished,” wants to have it both ways: a plot full of tabloid-worthy scandal moved along by characters who seem as innocent as a small-town newsletter. Although this tactic might suggest a compelling contrast — how do characters who still hide journals under mattresses react to a killer in their midst? — it instead occasions much hand-wringing and sobbing, but little in the way of forward motion.
The novel’s central character is Nellie Peck, an energetic 13-year-old who spends the bulk of her summer worrying about her family. Her older half sister, Ruth, wants to connect with her birth father in Australia, sending him letters whose responses Nellie intercepts and hides under the floorboards.
Meanwhile, the family hardware store, ceding to the pressures of a big-box economy, is failing fast. Rather than trying to shore up the business, Nellie’s father hides out in his office writing a history of their small town that nobody wants to publish. Nellie’s abusive grandfather treats everyone poorly. And, most worrisome of all, a stripper — the improbably named Dolly Bedelia — moves into the Peck family’s rental apartment and sucks up whatever attention Nellie’s parents might have had left for her.
Not that Nellie minds Dolly, particularly. Like everyone else in Springvale, Nellie is intrigued by the young woman, who is so flirtatious she seems scandalous and so childlike she seems impaired. For a walk to the local ice cream store, “Dolly had changed into a lacy blouse and ruffly skirt, the same bright yellow as her purse, and very high heels. Seeing her so dressed up made Nellie feel bad for her. They were only going for ice cream, but Dolly was excited. The whole way there she never stopped talking.”
When, about halfway through the novel, Nellie and her grandfather’s lodger, Max Devaney, discover Dolly’s dead body, “Light From a Distant Star” suddenly becomes the page-turner we were hoping for. Max, the story’s most indelible character, is immediately suspected of the crime; he’s silent, angry and disturbing, an outsider in a small town where neighbors can remember one another’s grandparents.
Worse, Max had been caught flirting with Dolly in his awkward, menacing way. “He’s tryna give her some flowers, one of those supermarket bouquets, you know, wrapped in cellophane,” gossips a biddy at the local salon, after the murder. “She not only refuses to take them, but she tells him she doesn’t want him coming to her house anymore. . . . He didn’t say anything . . . just kind of drops the flowers on the mat and takes off down the stairs.”
But although Max might unsettle everyone else in Springvale, Nellie likes him; he treats her decently and has even offered to take her fishing. Moreover, Max not only tolerates but actually seems to appreciate Nellie’s miserable grandfather, who has alienated every other person who has ever crossed his path. So Nellie recognizes what’s admirable in Max, and, through her eyes, so do we.
Necessarily, the plot grows thicker from here. Nellie not only sympathizes with Max but also thinks she knows who the real murderer is. Will Nellie tell what she knows? Will anyone believe her?
The last few chapters of “Light From a Distant Star” race along to a devastating finish, as judgment is rendered on the murderer and the entire town of Springvale. It’s hard not to wonder, reading these breathless pages, why Morris waited so long to get to the good stuff. This book might have been as unforgettable as Max Devaney had she only killed off that stripper a little sooner.
Grodstein’s most recent novel is “A Friend of the Family.”
LIGHT FROM A DISTANT STAR
By Mary McGarry Morris
Crown. 326 pp. $25