If true crime is an addiction, “Devil House” is a novelist’s cure. It’s a multilayered, fictional story of some horrific murders, their victims and perpetrators, and the man who sets out to tell their tales.
Author John Darnielle (of the band the Mountain Goats) has hit bestseller lists with his two previous novels; all three are haunted by darkness. In “Devil House,” you can expect to come across terrifying paintings on walls and a murder with an oyster knife, but not without understanding the hopes and lives of everyone involved. Darnielle has a real feel for places where the action isn’t, and the people who call those towns home.
It’s the early 2000s when crime writer Gage Chandler gets a tip about a forgotten, unsolved 1986 “devil house” murder in Milpitas, Calif., a small town between San Francisco and San Jose. Teens were suspected but never arrested. Chandler has had modest success with a slightly unusual method: He finds his way into his true crime tales through the locations where they took place. He’s wheedled, surveilled, trespassed. But for this story, he’s got an easier way in: The house is for sale.
Chandler buys it and moves in. It’s almost two decades later, and the traces of the crime have been erased. So he researches, as you would, to discover the building’s history. It began as a diner, became a newsstand, then a porn store in the shadow of a freeway. It is not, sadly, the Gothic Victorian of the book’s cover but something more mundane — a brick building that, if property values don’t go up, is probably near the end of its days.
He also tries to get into the mindset of the teens involved in the 1986 murder: college-bound Derrick, already-troubled Alex, manic Seth, helpful Angela. For a short while they turn the shuttered porn store, still furnished with its inventory and pervy back booths, into a hangout-slash-squat and decorate it with devilish flair. More than once they consider what it means to be a senior in high school, how their lives will fracture off into different directions in the future. In this section and the others, Darnielle is particularly good at telling the stories of lost young men with empathy, and of people teetering on the brink.
In part, Chandler is trying to channel the moment of the crime, and he goes to extraordinary measures to reimagine the site as it was at the time, including strewing broken glass and drawing chalk outlines on the floor. As unsettling as this is, it’s no worse than the artifacts of the killings that he buys from eBay, from purveyors who’ve made murder their business. And while these murders are fictional, those kind of sellers are real.
This is one of the subtle hints Darnielle drops in that points to our unhealthy relationship with true crime. And by “our,” I include myself — I love a good true crime podcast or book as much as anyone. I’m not so devoted that I’m going to conferences, dubbing myself an Internet sleuth, or calling myself a Murderino — but that kind of devotion has, in recent years, driven a whole industry. Some are critical of that industry, warning that we consumers get a vicarious thrill from the real pain of real people.
Darnielle underscores this idea by unfolding the book in different sections with surprising points of view. Before he’s really gotten to the heart of the devil house murders, the book shifts to the story of an earlier book of Chandler’s, “The White Witch,” about a nice woman who was attacked by teenagers, turned the tables and killed them. And then dismembered them — so, maybe not so nice. Chandler imagines what it was to be in her shoes, a teacher in the early 1970s in San Luis Obispo, exploring her interior life and showing how small incidentals were misread by the media and investigators to cast her in the worst possible light. We see the complexities of the situation — Chandler is trying to tell her story fairly, but he, too, is profiting from it. It’s his most successful book, and has been turned into a TV movie.
As if inspired by David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” Darnielle switches stories up again and then unfolds them, basically in reverse order. After a center interlude that seems entirely separate but actually speaks to all of the narratives, including Chandler himself, we return to the stories of the devil house and the witch murders, but in ways that recast them and show the damage wrought. There’s no finger pointing, just an expanding perspective that shows that these stories, structured for our satisfaction, leave pain in their wake.
Carolyn Kellogg is formerly the books editor of the Los Angeles Times.
By John Darnielle
MCD/FSG, 416 pages, $28