Brad Parks’ latest domestic thriller Closer Than You Know opens with a man and a woman – who are not mentioned by name – as they enter the Shenandoah Social Services Building. They are dressed in their best clothes as they walk arm in arm in the building to qualify as foster parents. The building itself is an uninviting metal sided building with no decorations or attempt to feel welcoming, which sets a bleak tone that carries throughout the novel. As they go through the interview process, they check all the boxes and put themselves forward as the perfect couple. They fly through the process and appear to be perfect, but they’re almost too perfect. The whole time I was reading I was wondering if there was a reason for this. Why would Parks open his novel with unidentified characters who clearly are not the main protagonists? At first it felt jarring, but as I continued reading, it made perfect sense. Parks was establishing an undercurrent of something sinister occurring under the seemingly picture perfect suburban veneer that opens Closer Than You Know. This seemingly minor opening serves as the catalyst for the nightmare that slowly unfolds throughout the story.
After this introduction, the story switches to Melanie Barrick’s perspective. Melanie has overcome a rough childhood and seemingly achieved her dream of having a stable family, with a husband and her newborn son Alex. She was able to graduate college and get a steady job, and while things aren’t perfect, she is happy. However, one day after racing to pick up Alex from daycare, she arrives only to realize he isn’t there. The day care provider, Ida Ferncliff, informs Melanie Child Protective Services came by earlier in the day and took Alex with them. While her biggest worry that day started off as losing her day care provider due to her strict rules on punctuality, she is now faced with every parent’s nightmare. When she returns home she learns the stunning truth as to why Child Protective Services took her son – police claim to have found a large amount of cocaine in her home. Around that time, the news of a big cocaine bust on Desper Hollow Road, crosses the desk of the chief deputy commonwealth’s attorney, Amy Kay. Her boss, Aaron Dansby, tells Amy it is one of the biggest drug busts in Augusta County history with half a kilo found inside Melanie’s home. Melanie is the picture of the perfect, suburban mother to most people and that is what makes her case explode. It’s all over the news and Melanie is now being branded as “Coke Mom”. Dansby wants to make an example of Melanie and go for a direct indictment. He saw the notoriety he got from putting away drug kingpin Demetrius “Mookie” Myers and plans to get the same high-profile coverage from Melanie’s case.
While trying to juggle the “Coke Mom” case, Amy also works an unsolved case that spans two decades, trying to track down a serial rapist who whispers to his victims. There have been at least eight attacks, though it could have been as many as 25. No one knows for sure because the rapist is very good at not leaving behind evidence and no one has really dug into it with the same passion and enthusiasm that Amy has. Parks’ uses these two storylines to craft a gut-wrenching thriller that taps into real-life fears and finds Melanie not only battling for custody of her son, but also trying to clear her name and avoid spending years in jail.
While the plot of Closer Than You Know is good, the strength of the story is the characters. They are very believable and Parks is able to get readers to connect to them easily. Melanie is a sympathetic character that anyone can relate to, even if they don’t have children. Parks brings Melanie to life and gives her a rich history that makes her seem like the sort of woman you could meet in everyday life. She is struggling to overcome the hardships of her past and carve out a better life in any way possible, just like most of us try to do. Melanie initially suspects someone called Child Protective Services on her to be spiteful and that is when we learn that she grew up in foster care. Parks does a good job of building Melanie’s character and using her history in the foster care system to create a vivid picture of what it is like. This story focuses on the darker side of it, where adults take advantage of the lack of oversight or families who took in children just for the money. Parks makes sure to mention that is just the minority of cases, but mentions that even those with the best intentions are ground down by a sprawling and outdated system with limited resources. Melanie’s knowledge of Social Services and their processes adds a realistic angle to the plot and she knows that even though she is innocent, she has a long road ahead of her.
Parks does a good job of mixing in anecdotes about her time in foster care and juxtaposing that over her current fight to get her son Alex back. The scenes that show her early childhood and how she ended up in foster care due to her father’s penchant for violence is gut-wrenching because it is something that occurs way too often in real life. Especially the scenes that show how the domestic violence slowly grows over time and how it’s often explained away and it takes something drastic until people are aware or do something about it. There are a lot of scenes that show Melanie’s hellish upbringing and it amplifies the horror of the situation Melanie finds herself in. She has seen some terrible things and now she can’t help but think of Alex going through that as well.
While Melanie is the most developed character and the one readers will be drawn to the most, Parks brings that same attention to detail to the secondary characters as well. Amy Kaye is a brilliant lawyer that protects her personal life at all costs to be more effective at her job. She does everything by the book and has a tenacity that makes her one of the best in her field. Even though she serves under Aaron Dansby, she is the one that puts in all the work and calls the shots, unless Dansby’s political aspirations bubble to the surface. As the novel wears on and she feels she is getting closer to catching the rapist, she begins to bend protocol. This creates an interesting character arc that I wish would continue in a sort of spin-off novel.
Aaron Dansby is the sort of smug, arrogant jerk that reader’s will love to hate. He is more of a politician than a lawyer and he got his job based off his family’s name. He wants to keep Melanie’s case so that he can parade himself in front of the cameras and take all the glory, but wants Amy to do most of the work. I loved the portrayal of his relationship with Amy. He is her boss and often acts like a jerk, attempting to control her by throwing his title around, but I love that Amy never backs down and consistently proves she is the better lawyer than he is. I also love that her determination to see justice done overrides Aaron’s attempt to make everything a publicity stunt. In the Whisperer Rapist case, she goes above and beyond and slowly but surely begins piecing the evidence together even though it initially seemed hopeless and countless others had already abandoned the case. She does all of this despite Aaron’s insistence that it’s not a priority and he offers her little to no support.
I also loved Melanie’s lawyer, Mr. Honeywell. Based on what she had seen in other cases involving Social Services, she expected him to be a bottom of the barrel lawyer who would cost her custody of her son through his ineptitude or lack of caring. Her initial meeting of him seemed to confirm her snap judgement, Mr. Honeywell seemed disheveled and worn down and Melanie felt her hope slipping away. However, as they get to know each other, Melanie learns there is more to Mr. Honeywell than meets the eye. I don’t want to spoil the evolution of their relationship, but it’s one of the bright spots of the novel and watching Mr. Honeywell’s transformation is pretty powerful.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Closer Than You Know, but it isn’t without some weak points. My main complaint regarding the story is that the mystery about who was behind setting Melanie up is pretty easy to figure out. Parks attempts to use twists to keep readers slightly off-balance, but ultimately the suspense of who is setting her up falls flat. Normally this would ruin a book for me, but Parks’ does such a great job with the characters, that I was still invested in following Melanie’s journey. Also despite the reveal being underwhelming, the final scene of the novel is incredibly tense and offsets the disappointment of the mystery being so easy to figure out.
I also didn’t like how some of the characters reacted to Melanie’s arrest. I get that in the real world, investigations are complex, murky and that the evidence usually points to the most likely scenario. But one thing that kind of irked me throughout the story was how easily every character outside of her immediate family believed she was guilty. I mean, Melanie led a normal life and had no prior run-ins with the law, yet everyone in the legal system was quick to accept she was some kind of drug kingpin. Sure, there are instances where people get away with crimes because they seemed ordinary and didn’t have a record. I just think that the novel would’ve been a bit more engaging if there was even just one ally for Melanie outside of her inner circle.
Despite those few weak spots, Closer Than You Know is a compulsively readable thriller that I recommend checking out. This was the first book I’ve read from Parks, but it definitely won’t be the last. There is no denying his talent and I definitely plan on going back and checking out some of his older books. I recommend you do the same.