Working as an undertaker in the industrial town of Brockton, Massachusetts, Clara Marsh has always known that she’s alone with the dead and privy to the “underside of humanity.” As she quietly prepares the deceased for burial, bathing their bodies with music and candlelight and funeral bouquets, she seeks comfort in her greenhouse of flowers, where the bright lights nurture growth and warm the living in a room that ultimately favors life.
When an eight-year-old girl named Trecie appears at the funeral parlor, presumably at the invitation of Linus Bartholomew, the parlor’s owner, her presence adds
a layer of complexity to Clara’s life. Trecie, with her long dark hair and odd, dissolute pallor, seems to reflect the aura of the neglected
- she’s a girl who has no home and very little to live for.
Ultimately the girl’s presence proves to be an enigma, her strange and uncharacteristic relationship with Linus confounding Clara, especially as she sees the girl as silently desperate, unnaturally composed, and embodying a sense of aloneness even when in the company of others. Linus begs Clara to help the little girl as she’s got to believe in someone, and perhaps only Clara can begin to provide the solace that Trecie needs.
When Clara is called by the medical examiner to a seedy neighborhood to pick up the body of Charlie Kelly, a key local figure, she meets with local detective Mike Sullivan. With his soft Irish features and an ambitious quality to his eyes, Clara finds herself increasingly sexually attracted to this caring man still haunted by the death of his wife three years ago, her ghost swirling and shifting around him.
Mike is also plagued by the murder of Precious Doe, a seven-year-old girl
whose name and story died with her, her body found barely a week before his wife was killed by a chronic drunk driver. At the time, Clara never told the police about the birthmark she found on the girl’s neck in the form of the perfect pink star; her reasons for never declaring it appear to be muddled at best. All she could do was lament the fact that no loved one ever stepped forwards to claim the unidentified girl.
While Clara just wants “the dead to be left dead” and wishes that Mike would just accept the finality of Precious Doe’s death, the events of those years continue to haunt her
as Mike refuses to shelve the unfinished business of the unidentified girl. Mike tells Clara there have been
recent anonymous calls made to Reverend Greene about this birthmark on the back of Precious Doe’s neck.
Her professional life exposed, Clara is thrust back into a brutal investigation, her increasing sexual attraction to Mike proving to be a stark counterpoint to the realities of the chaos around her. Shocked and dismayed, Clara finds herself again at the center police department investigations, along with Linus and his kindly wife, Alma.
The riddle of Trecie holds the key as she steadily invades Clara’s life, her presence pushing ever further into Clara’s psyche. Once Clara was only to ready to accept Precious Doe’s death when the girl was a stranger; now it’s as though the dead girl is reaching out to her through Trecie, begging her for help.
Reminiscent of the works of the great suspense writer Denis Lehane, the author’s liquid, mellifluous prose adds much to the dark and sinister atmosphere even when the plot tends towards the unoriginal and formulaic, especially in the final scenes. The strength of the novel is the juxtaposition of graphic descriptions of the dead, “the underside of humanity,” with the dirty underbelly of Brockton and the sexual manipulations of greedy, perverted men who profit from the sordid images of little girls.
Reeling from her fractured past, Clara follows her gut instinct, positive that Linus is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Held captive in the cold grip of fear, Clara is unexpectedly challenged to find the perpetrator through the memories of her dead mother, her grandmother, and an infant that suddenly dies. Ironically, these past experiences enable her to truly empathize with Trecie and get her through the terrifying climax where death raises its ugly aura and fear becomes the definitive foundation of evil.