Imagine the scene: two prisoners are assigned to a road crew on a winter day. Awaiting just such an opportunity, Nick, the mastermind, has enlisted the help of his cellmate, Harlan, a man with the mentality of Steinbeckís Lenny, dim but basically kind and biddable. Carefully timing their break, the men jump into a civilianís car as it passes by the orange cones they have been placing on the road, forcing the unlucky driver to deliver them to temporary safety. Nick has a plan, one he has not completely shared with Harlan, who is best kept in check with simple instructions. Eventually they arrive at an extravagant home in the Adirondacks where they force their way inside, intending to gather appropriate gear for the next phase of their plan: a trek into the wilds of Canada. Unfortunately, an approaching storm threatens to abort that plan, at least for a while.
The family inside--Ben, Sandy, and fifteen-year-old Ivy--are at the mercy of the intruders.
Surely this scene is sufficiently dramatic to propel the story forward, but for the authorís decision to complicate As Night Falls with a backstory that proves both awkward and randomly illogical as it evolves, from the road crew escape to the final bloody denouement--with a twist for good measure. Though well-written, it is also one of the strangest tales I have encountered recently. The theme is straightforward; had Milchman avoided the complicated histories of her protagonists, this thriller would still retain the elements necessary for the tension and suspense. The bad guys, Nick and Harlan, are predictable, though the description of larger-than-life-sized Harlan is difficult to entertain, a man who appears to intimidate others by his sheer physical presence. Harlan is a critical element in maintaining the level of threat to the captive Tremont family, though Nick, a murderer, is no slacker, reacting with violence to anyone standing in his way.
Enjoying their custom-built home thanks to a recent inheritance, its
extravagance an affront to the more modest domains of local residents, Ben is
the proprietor of an outfitters guide service, Sandy a psychologist working
part-time and Ivy a spoiled and rebellious teen unable to get along with her mother. The family is soon to come face to face with their worst nightmare, Harlan and Nick, whose history features Barbara, an overbearing mother blinded to her sonís faults and harboring a mental dysfunction that allows the perpetration of
his antisocial behavior that eventually lands him behind bars for murder. But it is the authorís penchant for crippling her charactersí emotions that really undermines their reactions in a life-and-death situation.
For example, Sandyís chronic self-doubt and people-pleasing angers her daughter and tries her husbandís patience. Always temporizing and second-guessing herself, Sandyís habitual questioning before taking action robs her of any integrity as a protagonist regardless of childhood history, a character literally stumbling through every phase of this crisis while injured Ben and terrified Ivy refuse to remain passive victims.
Nick metes out ample punishments to recalcitrant family members while trapped by the snowstorm. Harlan, the dumb but inherently kind enforcer, follows orders as the passage of time demands
that the criminals set out for Canada soon. Nick, like his mother, is a particular breed of monster, destined to wreak havoc on the world, Sandyís family both target and means to an end. Despite its remarkably bizarre plotline, As Night Falls accelerates from one incident to another, albeit over-embellished by a ludicrous backstory that undermines what might have been more simply and well told.