A detective thriller set in Plattsburgh

“Dark Kills,” by T.J. Brearton, is a page-turning whodunit detective story. Set in Plattsburgh and the surrounding communities, the story follows Detective Gates in a race to solve the mystery behind multiple deaths. But the serial killer has another victim tagged to be next. The detective is running out of time.

The first murder occurs not far from Oak Street. The body is found in a normally shallow river that winds through town. The second body is found in a marsh between Lake Champlain and Route 9. A third murder occurs, and the next potential victim is identified. Detective Gates will do anything to keep that one alive.

If a murder mystery and detective story formula, this book follows it. There’s an overworked detective with a neglected spouse and family at home, a wise-cracking partner, turf wars between federal and local law enforcement agents, and enough possible suspects to keep a reader uncertain about who the true killer is. But following a formula is not always bad. Brearton takes his genre’s framework and builds on it. He turns expectations upside down and takes apart stereotypes. Detective Gates is a woman. The long-suffering spouse is a stay-at-home dad. Detective Gates’ partner does have funny one-liners, but he only uses them to avoid confronting his own demons, one of which may include the murders Gates is investigating. Brearton follows the genre’s formula to the benefit of the story, and each chapter ends with a page that has to be turned again.

The murdered women are all psychology majors at Plattsburgh State. The scenes are set in downtown Plattsburgh and are precise right down to a furniture store and local bars on the main strip and housing projects south of town. A reader familiar with the location will imagine walking (or running) through the streets along with Detective Gates and will understand the environmental challenges the detective faces when she heads out into a nor’easter to track down one final clue.

If there is a downside to the story, it is that the author at times seems constrained by the genre. His writing is complex, and there are storylines that beg for a longer work, one that profiles more of the characters and explores more ideas. One example is the philosophy of the character Rakesh Lata, who writes, “All creatures degenerate.” Brearton just briefly touches on that moral philosophy and leaves the reader a bit confused and wishing for more of an explanation. Throughout the book, Detective Gates fights hard to prove that philosophy isn’t true, but at the end of the story, she faces the killer and hears these haunting words: “You will see.”

“Dark Kills” is a detective thriller well worth the read.