This atmospheric literary thriller features a protagonist who struggles with the events of her youth while finding salvation working as an undertaker in the town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Even as she prepares the dead for burial, Clara Marsh's flaws and insecurities are unexpectedly exposed when she's thrust into grizzly investigation involving the brutal murder of a seven year old girl three years ago. The girl, Precious Doe was never identified, her name and story dying with her even though at the time Clara never told the police who were investigating the death about the birthmark she found on the girl's neck in the form of the perfect pink star.
Although Clara doesn't exactly regret not telling the police, she does lament the fact that no loved one ever stepped forwards to claim the unidentified girl. Even as the events of those years continue to haunt her, Clara's called by the medical examiner to a run-down neighborhood to pick up the body of Charlie Kelly, a local figure in Broxton. It is here that she meets Mike Sullivan, who bravely tells her there have recently been some anonymous calls to the Reverend Greene about the birthmark on the back of Precious Doe's neck.
Shocked and dismayed to find herself at the center of all of the police department investigations, Clara battles her growing attraction to Mike, a man of fierce and violent determination who must also battle his own demons, that of his late wife's ghost who swirls and shifts around him, killed by a chronic drunk driver barely a week before Precious Doe's body was found. While Clara just wants the dead to be left dead, wishing that Mike would accept the finality of death, Mike refuses to shelve the unfinished business of Precious Doe.
When an eight-year-old girl named Trecie appears at the funeral parlor, ostensibly at the invitation of Linus Bartholomew, the parlor's owner, her presence adds another layer of mistique to the investigation. Trecie, with her long dark hair and her odd, dissolute pallor seems to reflect the aura of the neglected. Although Linus is content to let her play, Clara sees her as silently desperate, unnaturally composed, and embodying a sense of aloneness even when she's in the company of others.
It is this riddle of Trecie that adds to the menace, steadily invading Clara's life as she finds herself at the center of a three year cover-up and an investigation into child pornography that threatens to consume both her and Mike and Linus, the poor priest unwittingly finding himself the prime suspect in a pedophilia ring. Steadily held captive in the cold grip of fear, Clara was only to ready to accept Precious Doe's death when the girl was a stranger ,without a sense of life lived, but now it's as though the dead girl is reaching out to her through Trecie, begging her for help.
Mackinnon beautifully juxtaposes graphic descriptions of the dead, "the underside of humanity" with seedy apartment blocks, the dirty underbelly of Brockton and the criminal manipulation of greedy men who profit from the sordid images of little girls. While the police look towards Linus and his wife, Alma, Clara follows her gut instinct, positive that her friend is innocent. In an unexpected twist, Clara is challenged to find the perpetrator through her relationship with her dead mother and grandmother. Only these experiences enable her to truly empathize with Trecie. While at times, the plot verges on the predictable with a narrative that is somewhat telegraphed in the final scenes, the author has a statuesque prose style which adds much to sense of fear and tension that permeate throughout. Mike Leonard August 08.