A review of All the Lovely Children by Andrew Nance

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

All the Lovely Children
by Andrew Nance
Red Adept
Paperback: 320 pages, March 12, 2018, ISBN-13: 978-1986479639

Judging from the 100s of fictional accounts of serial killers, one must conclude the reading public is obsessed with the topic. Theories on why we have such a macabre fascination would no doubt fill a psychology journal. Still, there’s no denying it.

Though an explosion of such fiction in the 1970s coincided with the FBI coining the phrase “serial killer,” books on multiple killers were not new. Dime novels proliferated on Jack the Ripper from 1988 onward, and Jim Thompson, writing in the 1950s with such titles as The Killer Inside Me increased the body of work. Yet perhaps no author has been as successful or prolific on the subject as Thomas Harris with Silence of the Lamb, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising. Hannibal Lecter has become the iconic serial killer, and the success of the Hannibal franchise spurred on other writers to flood the market with their serial killer books.

Yet into this oversaturated market, a man who met literary success as a young adult author offers one more book on a serial killer. It was a bold step for Andrew Nance, yet he brings it off exceptionally well in All the Lovely Children. Nance adds a few twists to the formula, and, as such, gives a fresh gloss to the subgenre. He does so in part by weaving two separate but connected stories about two series of child murders together into one whole.

In All the Lovely Children, the two-stories-in-one are connected across a 23-year span by the protagonist Charly Bloom, a woman detective who faced down a serial killer as a youngster. As readers first meet Charly in the novel, someone is snatching girl children in Temperance, North Carolina in autumn 1982. All in all, four children are missing when Charly gets a call asking for her help in stopping the abductions and murders.

The twist is that 23-years ago, in 1959, someone began snatching girls in Temperance also. Charly, a tomboy, along with her two best friends, Bobby and Micah Lee, are just beginning to enjoy a lazy, innocent summer of baseball and swimming holes, when a meteoroid shower—or something like that—flashes through the heavens. Soon after, the news hits that someone abducted a young girl at night from her bedroom through an open window. Charly dubs the villain as “the Stalker.” As other girls disappear, Charly decides to actively investigate, and she drags Bobby and Micah Lee into a search for the missing girls. Her impulsiveness and headstrong determination to find the Stalker will, naturally, end quite badly for all.

As the 1959 story lines builds suspense chapter by chapter, Nance carefully weaves in the 1982 plot in which a grown-up Charly, still quick-minded, athletic, and inquisitive, but emotionally and physically scared from her 1959 clash with the Stalker, is invited back to Temperance. She is now in her thirties, a private detective and a veteran of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations.

Some of the folks Charly knew as a young teen are still in town, and still willing to help her. Others are gone. She learns that just as in 1959 a meteorite—or something like it in the skies—has crossed over Temperance. The bungling sheriff from 1959 is long departed, replaced by Kit, a competent and caring man—and a former lover of Charly. Kit, overwhelmed by what is happening and not trusting the help offered by the State Bureau of Investigations, hires Charly to come back and join the team to stop the 1982 killer. He believes in her detective skills, but he also has an ulterior motive also in calling her back home.

As the two plot lines both focus on Charly, she must be a particularly vivid and engaging character to hold the two stories together. And, given that the tough female detective is now a staple with the successes of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Waishaki, Nance must add something more to Charly than mere toughness. Creating a character within these confines might be a daunting task to an author with less talent, but Nance does a grand job with Charly.

In part, Nance achieves his success with Charly based upon two well-worn writers’ workshop rules, “show don’t tell,” and the adage that great conflicts build great stories. Charly acts in a series of life-threatening engagements with a physical strength, agility, and sheer gutsiness that shows just how tough she is without the need for any narrative on it. That she was a tomboy athlete as a young teen supports her grown-up strength and add credibility to such scenes as where she bests two bikers in an attempted rape.

But it’s the conflicts that make Charly so interesting. Her outward world is certainly filled with conflicts—she was driven from the State Bureau of Investigations by clashes with a male superior with far less on the ball than her and she’s now trying but failing to stop a child killer. Her inner landscape is troubled with emotional conflicts left over from her 1959 confrontation with the Stalker and her unresolved guilt over how that misadventure turned out. And then there’s Kit, and all the emotional turmoil of past love and second chances. Even her personality traits are in conflict as she is impulsive, yet analytical, intelligent yet often thoughtlessly reckless, cynical yet frequently trusting.

Thus, by creating such a strong, intriguing character, Nance pulls together the 1959 and the 1982 stories of a child killer around Charly. But the author’s difficult task in building this novel is still compounded by the two-stories-in-one aspects of All the Lovely Children. He must move seamlessly between the two stories to keep his readers with him in both worlds, which Nance does with finesse.

By switching between the 1959 and the 1982 story lines in a chapter-by-chapter manner, Nance skillfully builds the suspense in each, doubling the cliff-hanger/edge of your seat impact of each plot line. This is a tough trick for a writer to pull off because each story line must work independently on its own, and yet the two should mix and blend in a manner that keeps the story flowing. Pacing become twice as tricky when the two stories are meshed and different sets of characters are at play. And, by having a central character—Charly—linking the two stories, Nance has to keep Charly “in character” in the two stories despite the 23 years between them. That is, readers must believe the mature Charly is exactly who the young teen Charly would grow up to be.

One of the most interesting things Nance does in his book is that Charly, though clearly the hero, fails in both 1959 and 1982 to figure out just who the child killer is. She does not solve the case in any traditional detective manner. True, her actions in 1982 lead to a satisfying (and surprising) resolution, but not because she tracks the clues to a logical conclusion. Rather, her impulsiveness and determination cause her to stumble into the lair of the killer in 1982 just as in 1959. That was as brave a technique for Nance to use as is Charly’s own bullheaded tumble into the killer’s realm.

All in all, Nance has done a marvelous job in creating a well-written, suspenseful novel. His language is crisp and fresh, and his world-building is authentic, and his pacing just fast enough to keep readers at the edge of their seat, but slow enough to let them enjoy the ride. He has crafted a compelling, engrossing novel with more than one scene of gritty-realism that will prickle the back of your neck.

Nance is an award-winning author of young adult books, includingDaemon Hall(Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), named an American Library Association Quick Pick for the Reluctant Reader, a New York Library Book for the Teen Age, and nominated for an Edgar Award in YA, as well as a ALA Teens Top 10 for 2008. In addition to being a writer, Nance is an actor and amateur historian. He spent over twenty years working in the radio industry up and down the east coast and still volunteers at a St. Augustine, Florida college radio station. He lives in St. Augustine with his family.

About the reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro was raised on tales of errant, unhinged kith and kin, whiskey making, and the War Between the States. Inspired by such stories, she wanted to write fiction, but became a lawyer instead. An honors graduate of The University of Alabama Law School, she became the first female partner in a prestigious Sarasota, Florida law firm. After a decade of lawyering, Claire taught at Florida State University College of Law and spent one long, cold winter as a visiting legal writing professor at the University of Oregon.  Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine(2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley(2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow, and Trouble in Tallahassee (2018 KaliOka Press). Coming in Spring of 2019: Privilege (Moonshine Cove), a steamy legal thriller noir set on the Gulf coast of Florida. She recently finished polishing Wayward Girls–a manuscript she co-wrote with Dr. Penny Koepsel–and awaits the happy news when her agent, the great, fun, funny, and radically energetic Liza Fleissig, places it with the right publisher. Follow her at  http://www.clairematturro.com and https://www.facebook.com/authorclairematturro