I began reading Gae-Lynn Woods’ The Devil of Light in January, at about the same time I started watching True Detective on HBO, the gritty series starring Woodie Harrelson and Matthew MacConaughey, and was immediately struck by the similarities between the two stories.
Both stories feature victims of ritual murders, corpses found in bizarre poses and clues pointing to occult behaviours. Both stories also hint at a circle of sexual abusers of children, men who use their powerful positions in their communities to cover up their crime and enforce the secrecy of their cults.
And a further connection between the two: True Detective is set in the Louisiana coastal plain, just across the state border from east Texas, where you could find Arcadia, the setting of The Devil of Light.
This novel bears an uncanny resemblance to Project Truth, a police investigation in Cornwall, Ontario of a suspected ring of child abusers, men, including priests, who traded their child victims among themselves.
I was so struck by all the similarities that I even emailed Gae-Lynn Woods, author of The Devil of Light, to tell her about it. She responded that she had not watched True Detective, nor heard of Project Truth, but she was going to look into both.
But this post is a review of the novel by the independent author from east Texas, so let’s concentrate on that.
The story: A complex series of murders
The Devil of Light begins with a drifter, who adopts only the name Hitch, ritualistically killing an unnamed victim at the behest of an “old man.” Cassandra “Cass” Elliot and her partner, Mitch Stone, are assigned the investigation, which is hampered because the body has no identification. They suspect it’s a missing migrant worker, but before they can make much progress, a local businessman and hobby farmer, Lenny Scarborough, is murdered by his long-abused wife in a spectacular, if very rural way — she drives the spikes of a hay loader through his chest.
In Scarborough’s house, the detectives discover the motive of the murder: photographs of men having sex with young girls and with other men. All the shots are very close-up and show no faces; scars in one picture, though, match the murder victim’s body. It seems Angie, Lenny’s long-abused wife, had discovered the photos while Lenny was working in the cow barn, and that was enough to channel the anger from years of physical abuse into driving the specialized fork-lift truck through her husband.
The photographs lead the police to suspect their idyllic town harbours a ring of pedophiles, and the investigation indeed uncovers it — a ring comprising some of the most powerful and respected men in the community.
This being a crime novel, the bodies begin to pile up, as do layers of secrets and conspiracy.
Where a writer’s skill is critical
Woods is a skilled and talented author. She creates detailed and believable characters, people readers can picture and hear. The main character, Cass Elliot — who insists that the coincidence of her name with that of the late singer from the Mamas and the Papas is really nothing more than a coincidence — has an interesting back-story including rape and a scar around her breast, as well as an older brother serving a long jail sentence for something he may not have done. But Woods knows how to keep the back-story from bogging down her plot, and brings out details when they’re needed, just enough to keep us turning pages (or swiping the e-reader screen) to find out more.
Very few weaknesses
There are a lot of characters in this book, and sometimes it’s hard to keep them all straight — especially the younger minor policemen, most of whom seem to be blond and athletic. This is in opposition to most of the baddies, who in addition to sharing a compulsion to sexually abuse young people, share a propensity to obesity.
The family and social links among the police, suspects, victims and those who discover the bodies also get thicker and more tangled, enriching rather than confusing the story.
The main characters are clearly drawn and consistently presented — except for the main bad guy. The author never names him, and provides only enough detail to make us suspect he could be one of two people in Arcadia.
Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking novel
While this novel has an enthralling climax and satisfying conclusion, it did not solve the mystery or end the story. Again showing her writing skills, Gae-Lynn Woods leaves us on the last page of The Devil of Light with a reason — no, a need — to buy the sequel, Avengers of Blood.
Well done, Ms. Woods!
(reviewed 48 days after purchase)