Dark Secrets 2 provides a double-bill of thrillers with a gothic twist, both located in the same evocative watery hinterland of Maryland, USA. In the first title teenage Jenny, from a theatrical family, is on the trail of her murdered sister, Liza, a talented drama student. The story immediately demands a willing suspension of disbelief from the reader since Jenny has persuaded her parents to send her to the very summer drama camp in rural Wisteria where Liza met her death the previous year – despite the fact that she, herself, is a budding gymnast, rather than an actress. Having set up this improbable premise, Elizabeth Chandler swiftly moves the reader along with the breezy assurance she brings to the remainder of a skilfully handled plot full of supernatural suspense.
Jenny has enrolled at Drama House under a false name seeking to understand more about her sister’s death at the apparent hands of a serial killer, whose trademark signature – leaving a smashed watch on his victim’s wrist – reveals that he has moved on from the camp. She visits the theatre where Liza performed and experiences the first in a series of unsettling manifestations when she hears Liza’s voice in the auditorium. Taking her sister’s old room, she begins to have ‘flashbacks’, accompanied by an eerie blue light – it appears that Liza is trying urgently to communicate with her.
Back in the present, Jenny finds herself in the thick of student politics with camp regulars vying for plum parts in the summer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and for the attention of Walker Burke, camp drama director, a charismatic organiser whose theatrical career in New York has stalled. Jenny has put herself down as ‘Crew’, but Walker is determined that all the campers will take a turn on stage at rehearsals. Despite incipient stage fright, Jenny’s gymnastic prowess results in her being cast as Puck, earning her the enmity of the mysterious and menacing Paul. Meanwhile she finds herself uncomfortably drawn to Mike, Liza’s boyfriend from last year.
With an apparently motherly Maggie, assistant director, taking Jenny under her wing and Maggie’s son, Brian, showing a keen interest, Jenny is torn between maintaining her persona of genuine camp student and disentangling student gossip about last year’s horrific events. Both her own researches and her alarming flashbacks suggest that Liza was not a victim of the serial killer at all, but of someone much closer to camp.
Elizabeth Chandler is expert at ratcheting up the tension and laying false leads for the reader, to suggest malevolent motivations for a number of the characters. And even when the plot creaks, as it does in parts, the portrayal of the teenage characters is warmly sympathetic so that the thriller is always grounded in the drama of camp dynamics.
The Deep End of Fear is an altogether darker affair, which makes greater demands on the reader, in part because it pits its teenage heroine against a family group of deeply unpleasant characters – move over the Addams family – and the locus of disquiet is a young child, Patrick.
In order to fulfil her dead father’s request to return a ring, Kate returns reluctantly to the Westbrooks’ house, Mason Choice, scene of a tragedy in which her childhood friend Ashley drowned in a pond on the estate. She adopts an incognito as prospective tutor to the young heir, Patrick, to circumvent the Danvers-like housekeeper who is determined to keep her away. But even after she has safely delivered the ring, growing concerns for Patrick’s safety compel her to stay. Patrick claims he can see the dead Ashley who is always goading him to dangerous escapades on the estate. It appears he is channelling the dead girl’s spirit – and that spirit appears distinctly malevolent. When both Patrick’s pets and Patrick himself meet with accidents, it is far from clear whether this is through supernatural or human agency.
Kate’s situation is complicated by the need to understand her own past in the house which her artist father – employed by the Westbrooks – fled precipitately on an alarming night-time journey which Kate remembers in vivid, but confusing snatches and after which her mother disappeared. Kate is not the only one on the trail of the past. Outside the house, local townsman Joseph Oakley, who used to be Ashley’s tutor, has returned to wind up his dead mother’s antique business, while attractive Sam, a local hockey skating hero, reveals both a marked antipathy for the Westbrooks and a surprising connection with them.
Kate is an attractively feisty and determined heroine, although I would have found her more convincing as a 20-something, rather than the 17-year-old we’re asked to accept (even one who has had to fend for herself and her father since her mother’s departure). However, her resourcefulness and courage do function as a beacon of light in the largely cynical, self-interested world of the adults portrayed, while the ‘Will they, won’t they?’ romance with Sam hints at hidden vulnerability. As in No Time to Die, some elements of the plot strain credulity, particularly towards the last few chapters. However, this is more than made up for by Elizabeth Chandler’s skill in creating atmosphere: a claustrophobic interior is balanced by an eerily evoked exterior landscape – a tale for those who like their chills neat.