Software-developer-turned-novelist Laura McHugh released her fourth mystery book this summer, What’s Done in Darkness, earning national recognition in Oprah Daily’s 2021’s Best Beach Reads, ELLE Magazine’s Best Books of the Summer list and Harlan Coben’s pick for Best Summer Thriller.
Staying true to her colors, McHugh details a chilling plot set in a remote rural town in the Ozarks. McHugh introduces her own spin on familial hardship as a young woman confronts her past — involving abduction and an oppressive cult. While this story stems from McHugh’s imagination, the inspiration was derived from real women’s abduction cases and their struggle to be heard and believed. The book broaches the way in which women can be victim-blamed or gaslit after suffering abduction or abuse — something McHugh is passionate about bringing attention to.
In our interview with McHugh, she shares her thought process behind What’s Done in Darkness, her accomplishments as a writer and her ambitions in storytelling.
Question: What is the main premise for your newest book, What’s Done in Darkness?
Answer: It is about a young woman whose family belongs to a strict, cult-like backwoods church where girls and women wear long dresses, behave submissively and enter arranged marriages in their teens. The main character, Sarabeth, seeks a way out of this life and is abducted from her family’s Arkansas farm. When she is set free, nobody believes her story — until five years later.
Q: How does this novel differentiate from your previous works?
A: It’s similar to my previous novels in some ways. It’s set in the Ozarks like The Weight of Blood, in a remote rural area, and it’s dark and suspenseful and a bit creepy like all of my work. It touches on a favorite theme of mine. I’m always writing about family and its inherent complications.
Q: What awards has your newest novel achieved?
A: The book was published this year, so any awards or nominations would not happen until 2022. It has garnered some accolades, though. The most exciting thing was seeing mega-bestselling author Harlan Coben holding up my book on the Today Show and declaring it the best thriller to read this summer. I’m a huge fan of Coben’s, and it was a thrill to see my book recommended on national television.
Q: Of the awards you have received in your career, which are you most proud of?
A: My debut novel, The Weight of Blood, won the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel and that was a huge honor. When my name was called at the award ceremony, I couldn’t believe it. It was something I hadn’t dared to dream of when I was writing the book.
Q: What challenges do you face writing within the same genre and similar settings for your books?
A: Much of my work is inspired by true crimes in the Midwest and the Ozarks, and there’s no shortage of material in that regard. I set each of my books in a different — usually fictional — location in the Heartland. There is a focus on small towns and rural areas, and the stories and characters are different each time, which keeps things fresh for me.
Q: Do you have practices or writing methods that help you keep up with the captivating nature of your books?
A: I strive to craft suspenseful mysteries that will keep the pages turning. I usually start with a question that I’m dying to know the answer to, like “What happened to that missing girl?” or “Who killed that person — and why?”
I do my best to write the story in such a way that the reader is dying to know, too, and won’t put the book down until the answers are revealed.
Q: What kind of impact do you imagine your books having on your audience?
A: I hope to entertain readers, and if my work can go beyond that and resonate with someone in a deeper way, that truly makes the work feel meaningful. I’ve had readers send me songs and artwork inspired by my books, and one reader sent me pictures of the cover of The Weight of Blood tattooed on her arm. Positive feedback from readers is one of the most rewarding parts of a writing career.
What’s Done in Darkness can be purchased locally at Skylark Bookshop, Plume and Barnes & Noble.