12 challenge, book 5 – The Family Plot

It’s time for book 5 of my 12 challenge: late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Follow that link for my thoughts on the first four books.

The fifth is The Family Plot by Megan Collins.

First, this one wasn’t entirely recommended. I remembered seeing a friend mention it in her blog. She included the full back-of-the-book blurb, but I only needed to read the first part:

At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse is haunted by her upbringing. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she is unable to move beyond the disappearance of her twin brother, Andy, when they were sixteen.

After several years away and following her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house, where the family makes a gruesome discovery: buried in their father’s plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.

… and thought “Oooh, yes, I need to read this one!” Except this friend doesn’t read many thrillers – she’s first and foremost a romance fan – and when I announced it was on the list, she messaged me to say she hadn’t actually finished the book. Which means technically this isn’t a recommendation.

Too late. I read it.

So: if you don’t like thrillers, you probably won’t like this thriller. Because it’s totally a thriller.

Now for the tricky bit. I tend to go by how much information is given away on the back cover when deciding what qualifies as a spoiler and what doesn’t, especially since the whole thing about thrillers is that there’s a bunch of mystery and things you try to figure out before the characters get there. So my first non-spoilery thought is:

What’s up with the kids’ names?

All four of the Lighthouse kids (now grownups) get introduced in the first couple of paragraphs. There’s Charlie, named after Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. (aka The Lindbergh baby); sister Tate, named after Sharon Tate; and the twins Andy, named after Andrew Borden (father and potential victim of his daughter Lizzie) and Dahlia, named after Elizabeth Short (aka “The Black Dahlia“). The lighthouse family is obsessed with murders and Honoring murder victims on the anniversaries of their deaths, so yeah, okay, all four kids are named after victims. But … I’ve still got some questions.

Charlie and Andy are given the first name of “their” victim. The boys have traditionally masculine first names. But the girls …

Tate is Tate, not Sharon. And Elizabeth Short was never called “The Black Dahlia” when she was alive – it only became her nickname after her murder (which Dahlia, also known as “Dolls,” describes in those early pages. What happened to her was gruesome, and graphic, and be warned if you go Googling for photos.)

So basically right away I was a bit suspicious of the apparent devotion to murder victims because of the daughters’ names. Dahlia stresses over and over again that her mother, who homeschooled the children, focused on the victims as real people, and yet she named her own daughters skewed versions of victims’ names.

If I were attending a book club about The Family Plot, we’d totally discuss this.

Holy true crime references, Batman

You caught the “true-crime obsessed parents,” yes? The Lighthouse kids were homeschooled, and guess what the curriculum centered around. Except, again, the focus is on the murdered people and not the murderers, the way most true crime leans.

Dahlia drops in random and not always casual references to murder victims not just inside her head, or because of something from her childhood she encounters because she’s back home, but also to needle other people. To sort of point out that yes, fine, we’re looking at a murder investigation here, but maybe your whole approach is a little off. It’s not “Oh, cool – a murder!” (especially since the island she grew up on also has its own serial killer) or some sort of emotionally-distant thing. It’s not even as removed as the crimes her mother made them all study as kids, because this is her own twin brother.

You might not recognize Charlie, Tate, Andy, and Dahlia as murder victim names if that was all you had, but Dahlia explains them straight off. The Lindbergh baby, the Manson Murders, Lizzie Borden, and the Black Dahlia are some of the more famous true crime cases, but they’re also easy enough to Google – and to find a lot of information about – if you don’t recognize them even after the explanation.

More subtle are the names Dahlia drops in conversation, to the point where you might wonder if they’re made-up for the book or if they have real-life counterparts. And you do kind of wonder if you should really feel as bad as Dahlia wants other people to feel when she uses them, not quite deftly, to deflect attention or the current line of questioning.

So in this hypothetical book club, we’re also going to discuss the Lighthouse family’s orientation to murder victims.

Instagram handle alert!

I would also totally ask everyone else in the book club if they looked up the Instagram account given to sister Tate, because I’m totally the sort of person who’ll go online and look for those things. Jeffrey Deaver used full email addresses in one of his books connected to a website that wasn’t Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo, so you can bet I put in the address to see if it actually existed.

This sort of thing fascinates me because it’s a real-world reference that people can check, sure, but it could also be invasive. What happens if you don’t snag the website or screenname yourself and then someone comes along later and makes the account? Or what if you didn’t check and it turns out it was already someone’s account? (In this case the only thing on the account is a photo of the cover of the book, in case you’re wondering.)

But it’s also a cool character aspect because you’re working within real-world restrictions as far as choosing the screenname. Authors make up character names all the time, but screennames connected to social media accounts have to fall within specific restrictions. (And how early in the process did she claim the screenname? Was she drafting and like “Oooh yes, let’s go!” before she was even sure it would be published? Or …)

Okay and I’d also have some more questions that I can’t fully discuss here.

For starters: so … how do we classify that ending? Happy? Sad? Somewhere in the middle?

How do we feel about concepts like “justice” and “fairness” when applied to this book and these characters?

Do you think we ever got the “real”/full story?

How do we decide who’s trustworthy here (or really in any psychological thriller)?

If you’ve read The Family Plot, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think this one’s left me feeling more like a walking question mark than Night Film.

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