1384 Terror at Cold Creek
by Chevy Stevens
Reviewed by Zoe McKenna
Spoiler warning: this review reveals important details of plot development — Ed.
New York Times Bestselling author Chevy Stevens returns after a four-year hiatus with her chilling seventh novel, Dark Roads, a disturbing roadside murder mystery.
Stevens, a Vancouver Island local, began writing Still Missing, her New York Times bestselling debut novel, while still working as a real estate agent. Now a full-time author, Stevens’ lifelong residence of British Columbia is apparent in her vivid portrayal of the West Coast.
Dark Roads follows the haunting disappearances and murders of women along the Cold Creek Highway. While this highway is fictional, the “wall of thick impenetrable trees,” “sheer” mountains, and “ravines deep and lined with jagged rocks” are easily recognizable to any British Columbian. The murders and abductions along the highway will also ring of familiarity to many locals. As Stevens describes in the Author’s Note, this novel is heavily inspired by the Highway of Tears in Northern British Columbia, evoking the real-life issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
The novel begins with an eerie prologue from the perspective of one of the yet-unknown murdered women along the highway. This ghostly apparition details her own death, in addition to lamenting the other lost lives replaced with missing persons posters, cross markers, and similar indicators of carnage that the highway killer has left behind. Most chilling is the sensation that this apparition is still tied to the location, not only watching the world continue without her, but also the subsequent attacks on other women along the highway.
Divided into three parts, Dark Roads boasts a propulsive structure that leaves readers searching for answers. Part One is narrated by Hailey, a teenage orphan living with her aunt and uncle after the loss of her father. Hailey, struggling to process her monumental loss, is suffocated by Vaughn, her police sergeant uncle. As Hailey tries to continue her old life in Cold Creek alongside her best friend, Jonny, Vaughn intervenes at every step. Vaughn makes it increasingly obvious that his actions aren’t rooted in overzealous protection, but rather in predatory violence. In order to protect herself, Hailey fakes her disappearance and flees to the woods, calling upon the survivalist skills her father taught her before his death. Not long after her escape into the wilderness, Hailey comes across the violated body of the latest highway victim — her girlfriend, Amber.
The initial section works well to establish Hailey as an unorthodox protagonist. Rather than simply a young woman in distress, she is portrayed as morally “grey” through actions such as sedating her six-year-old cousin with over-the-counter medications. Despite this, Hailey’s determination to oust the highway killer — who may or may not be living under the same roof as her — provides nerve-wracking tension to the first chapters. Fans of mystery narratives or true crime shows might suspect from the early chapters of the novel that Vaughn is too convenient of a villain. Hailey’s suspicion and dislike of him emerges within the novel’s first pages, marking him as a red herring. Yet, as the novel continues and more details come to light, readers are forced to second guess their certainty and consider Vaughn as a viable suspect once again.
As Hailey’s narrative departs from Cold Creek and into the bush, readers further reckon with the multitude of threats facing her. While the forest hides Hailey from her uncle, a multitude of other factors put her at risk. British Columbians — especially those who enjoy hiking or nature walks — will be familiar with the fear of finding a cougar, bear, or other predator hiding in the bushes. Stevens paints a lively image of the wilds of British Columbia, certain not to portray it as a simple safe haven.
Part Two is narrated by Beth, Amber’s older sister. Rocked by her Amber’s murder, Beth leaves behind the big city and her aspirations of becoming a lawyer in order to come to Cold Creek to find answers. Taking on Amber’s old job at the local café places Beth at the centre of local gossip, gaining the attention of both Jonny and Vaughn. The police sergeant makes sure to place Jonny as a primary suspect in the disappearance of his niece and the murder of Beth’s sister, complicating the budding relationship between Jonny and Beth. This second section sustains the novel’s tension, and the new, outside perspective permits Stevens to seed doubt about everyone in the community — even those who Hailey trusted.
The final section of the novel is narrated by both Hailey and Beth in alternating chapters as the narrative converges around unanswered questions and the ever-looming threat of “who’s next.” This portion serves to highlight how distinct the two leading characters’ voices are, as these quickly alternating chapters never bleed together, even when the connective tissue between narrative events becomes more difficult to follow.
While the subject matter of Dark Roads is frighteningly dark, with little spared when it comes to descriptions of violence, the novel is unexpectedly suited to younger readers. Between teenage narrators, the fluttering sensation of new crushes, and a great deal of narrative space committed to Wolf, Hailey’s sidekick dog, the novel feels reminiscent of early examples of the young adult mystery genre such as Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. To those in search of a gritty mystery novel, this style has the potential to be disappointing, but positioning this book as something suitable for younger readers is a successful means by which to bring awareness to the ongoing issue of highway safety for young people — especially young women.
The novel concludes in typical mystery style: the perpetrator is revealed and the heroes piece back together what remains of their lives in order to continue forwards and overcome their experience. While this type of ending is customary to the genre, in Dark Roads it leaves the conclusion feeling too neat and tidy to adequately reflect the ongoing issue of MMIWG in Canada. The last-minute pivot away from portraying Vaughn as the killer, instead placing him as a dirty cop willing to turn a blind eye to crime for personal gain, is anticlimactic. The choice to position Mason, the café owner “rumored to have been in a biker gang at one time,” as the killer not only plays into old stereotypes and reinforces the concepts of what “types” of people are untrustworthy but is also a resolution that seems to have no foreshadowing or narrative clues.
In some ways, this surprise ending serves to remind readers that there may not always be indicators to determine who may or may not be capable of heinous crimes. Still, the neatness and speed with which the novel concludes is disappointing and does little to speak to the many unsolved cases of missing Indigenous women in British Columbia or the complexity of these incidents. As such, the ending serves to highlight the absence of Indigenous women within the novel, which seems a glaring omission when considered against how much of the narrative is focused on plot devices that don’t work to move the mystery forwards, such as Beth and Jonny’s romantic relationship, or Wolf the dog. Refocusing some of this time and attention to create more complexity in the novel’s conclusion, would clarify the author’s intent with this novel and position Dark Roads as a distinct addition to the genre.
Despite an anticlimactic ending, Stevens weaves a deeply unsettling mystery in Dark Roads — one that will have readers second-guessing every lonely highway they encounter. For fans of teenage mystery, this is one to watch out for.
Zoe McKenna recently completed her Master of Arts from the University of Victoria and also holds a Bachelor of Arts from Vancouver Island University. Her thesis, as well as a great deal of her other reading and writing, focuses on horror writing in Canada, especially that by BIPOC authors. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal Magazine and the Quill & Quire. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found hiking a local mountain or in front of a movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter @zoevmckenna. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has also reviewed books by Carmella Gray-Cosgrove, Ed O’Loughlin, Meghan Bell, Genni Gunn, Penny Chamberlain, Brooke Carter, and Donalda Reid for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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