In Stacy Willingham’s thriller A Flicker in the Dark (Minotaur, Jan. 2022), a convicted killer’s daughter grapples with her father’s legacy, and with her terror as young girls begin disappearing, once again, from her Louisiana hometown. Her father can’t be responsible this time—he’s serving decades behind bars—and she’s determined to find out who the culprit is. PW spoke with Willingham about how she crafted her psychologist-turned-sleuth protagonist and how she hopes her book, which has been optioned for a limited series by actor Emma Stone’s production company, will challenge readers.
Describe the inspiration for your book.
I always had a fascination with serial killers and psychology. There are a lot of great books already in this space, but the ones I knew and loved focused on the cat-and-mouse game between detective and killer. I wanted to look at this story through the eyes of someone who loved the killer. It wouldn’t be just this one-dimensional “wicked killer” story. It would explore complicated emotions through his daughter’s eyes.
Your protagonist, Chloe, is a psychologist. What’s it like writing a character who knows so much about human nature?
She’s so far from perfect, which makes her interesting but frustrating—I just wanted to shake her sometimes. She gives herself the advice she gives her clients, but doesn’t always follow it. Chloe knows a lot about trauma because of her childhood, but it’s not so easy for her to accept her own advice. She needs to move past the trauma, but she’s still wrapped up in it.
As the daughter of a convicted murderer, Chloe is naturally distrustful. Does that make her a better investigator?
She looks at everyone with suspicion, even herself. She thinks about all these red flags in her childhood that she didn’t see until it was too late. As an adult, she’s distrustful of people who may not deserve it—and of those who do. This is good and bad. It allows her to look at people carefully, but it’s tough, and it puts her at a disadvantage, not to be able to trust herself.
You live in Charleston, S.C., and your book is set in Breaux Bridge, La. What interests you about the South?
There’s something so visceral and unique about a Southern setting. The air is so thick and hot you can feel it. It’s like butter. The sound of the shrieking cicadas, the frogs—there’s a real white noise. This story needed to be in the South, and Louisiana just felt right. I needed a small town, because the disappearance of six girls in a small population would be so huge. Breaux Bridge is also the crawfish capital of the world. The crawfish festival scene was my favorite chapter to write.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I want to challenge every reader. If you were Chloe—if you came from an otherwise loving family, had fond memories of a parent, and then realized something was going on under your own roof that was so evil and you had no idea—how would you see the world? How would you see yourself?