Camille is a reporter in Chicago with a troubled past…a past that’s about to bite her in the butt when her editor sends her home to Wind Gap, Missouri to report on some disturbing murders of young girls. Well, there was one murder last year, but now another girl, Natalie, has gone missing. At first she’s all, “Okay, I can handle this if I have enough bourbon.” But it’s been almost a decade since she last saw her family, and it seems like she doesn’t have a great handle on her issues.
She grudgingly drives home, and because with Camille it’s work before
pleasure the utter psychological torture of seeing her mother, she first meets with Police Chief Vickery to ask about the girls. Ann Nash (the girl who was killed last fall) was strangled with clothesline and left to essentially hang by it in a stream out in the woods. Now the whole town is out combing those same woods looking for Natalie Keene, so she joins them in their ultimately unfruitful quest.
Early the next morning, Natalie’s body is found. Like Ann, her teeth had been pulled, and the town is officially in an uproar. In comes the big-shot Kansas City detective Richard Willis. He seems professional, and they manage to hit it off despite their common ground being the gruesome murder of a young girl.
Throughout the course of their investigation, we meet a whole slew of people who should probably be institutionalized. There’s Camille’s younger sister, Amma, who is by turns creepily infantilized or overtly sexual, and yet is always extremely cruel and manipulative. Camille’s mother, Adora, is cold and distant to an eerie degree (like, could she have had a frontal lobotomy without Camille knowing?) We also discover that Camille had another younger sister Marian, who died of a mysterious illness when she was 11. Oh, and how can we forget Alan, Camille’s stepfather, who is smarmier than that bad guy from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and so odd that he eats sardines out of the can for a snack. (Ew.) And those are just the people who live in her house. There are also old high school friends still scrambling for popularity, townies who resent the stigma of being from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, and the grieving families of Ann and Natalie. So far, it’s a super pleasant trip home.
Camille is a motivated investigator, but is consistently derailed by small town social issues, her messed up family life, her budding relationship with Richard Willis, and her raging alcoholism. Oh, and she also has been hospitalized in the past because she has a nasty habit of carving words into her own skin with sharp objects (title alert), so she’s distracted by that urge (and the need to hide it) as well.
So the investigation continues. She finds a witness to Natalie’s abduction, a little boy named James Capisi, but his story is discredited because he’s got a sick mother and a story about Natalie being grabbed by a ghostly woman all in white. She interviews the families of the girls (including Natalie’s older brother John, who is quickly becoming the most likely suspect) and townsfolk who may have some juicy gossip, and grills the imperturbable Richard for any details he might have. Other than discovering the town’s truly disturbing penchant for violence, Camille is unable to make much progress.
Then things start to go downhill. Camille gets suckered into a drug and alcohol binge with Amma and realizes that her little sister is pretty psychologically disturbed. She gets drunk and sleeps with John Keene. She gets drunk with her mother and comes to the realization that, Dear God, her mother’s nursing ministrations always make her sicker. She starts to think her mother may be the one who killed Ann and Natalie.
She decides to try and find information about Marian’s death, and finds a nurse who confesses that she knew Adora was the one making Marian ill. It’s called Munchausen By Proxy, and it’s when a mother poisons their own child because they’re addicted to the attention they get. Holy smokes.
When Camille confesses her discovery to Richard, he tells her that they've suspected her mother all along. Adora is arrested, and they find a crap-load of illegal drugs in her possession that she has been using to poison Marian, Camille, and Amma for years.
Amma goes to Chicago to live with Camille (she’s thirteen, remember? Someone has to take custody) but things don’t start to get better. She’s still, uh, how can we say this delicately? She’s crazier than a sack of rabid weasels. But it’s not until she kills one of her new schoolmates that we discover she was the one who killed Ann and Natalie. She had been using their teeth to replicate her mother’s ivory bedroom floor in her elaborate dollhouse replica of her childhood home. Gross.
Camille understandably goes crazy, and ends up living with her editor and his wife so that someone can take care of her in a non-Munchausen kind of way. And thus our dark tale ends with woe. And, um..."whoa."