One day in the American town of Niceville, ten-year-old Rainey Teague disappears on his way home from school. Literally disappears – a security camera shows him looking at something in a shop window, stepping back with his mouth opening in alarm, and then vanishing from sight as if someone were playing a cheap trick with the film. But as far as anyone can tell, there’s no hoax – the camera shows exactly what happened. Equally perplexing is that there’s no one to blame, and no explanation, except perhaps some intangible evil force within Niceville itself…
Then suddenly the novel seems to morph into a completely different story with multiple plot stands. A bank robbery leads to the brutal murder of several cops and a news team. One of the robbers is betrayed by his partners and narrowly escapes with a bullet in his back, but is rescued by a mysterious woman living on a plantation in the forest. An ex-FBI agent with some dirty secrets has to try to reclaim a very dangerous item that was stolen from his safe deposit box in the bank. He planning on selling it to the Chinese, and they won’t be very forgiving if he doesn’t deliver. An abusive husband and father wants to take revenge on the lawyer and judge who banned him from contact with his family. For now, he decides to practice and perfect his plan by ruining the lives of people with no connection to him. A woman and a man both go missing from an old mansion in Niceville. Both are members of one of the town’s founding families.
Only the latter plot is directly related to the first part of the book where Rainey went missing. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d somehow started reading a different novel. The only factors that seem to connect part two to the beginning are the location, the new disappearances, and a few common characters, notably Nick Kavanaugh, the investigating officer who led Rainey’s case, and his wife Kate, a family-practice lawyer.
At first this really bugged me. It’s like you’ve been tricked into reading a novel completely different from the one you expected and started reading. Attention is taken away from the unexplained supernatural aspects of Rainey’s disappearance and the focus is put on some very realist criminal activity. It’s a while before we get back to the most interesting stuff, and even then it’s only one aspect of a much more complex story.
Eventually though, everything seemed to be coming together as characters and storylines connect. I love novels and movies with multiple, interlinked plots, so I really enjoyed the middle bit of Niceville where the individual plot strands began to intertwine. It’s also where the book started to get really creepy (although that might also be because I read quite a lot of this in the middle of the night). Clearly, there is something wrong about Niceville. Most notably, the town “has logged one hundred and seventy-nine confirmed and completely random [stranger abductions] since records first started being kept back in 1928. This is a disappearance rate of, like, a little over two a year, […] which is completely whacked.” A few cases were solved, but “[o]f the remaining one hundred and sixty- two people— men, women, sometimes kids—not a single trace has ever been found.”
Rainey Teague was the most recent case, at least until Delia Cotton and Gray Haggard disappear from Delia’s mansion. There are a lot of eerie details surrounding the disappearance: a beautiful but creepy girl in a green summer dress; antique mirrors reflecting things that aren’t there; a weird mark on the floor in the shape of a person; the way past horrors seem to be intruding on the present. It’s all got something to do with dark secrets of Niceville’s founding families, and some kind of primordial evil that lies hidden in the cold black waters of Crater Sink, a large circular sinkhole in the cliff that hangs over the town.
You might be wondering what this has to do with bank robbers, cop-killers and the other criminals in the novel, all of whom are clearly devoid of supernatural powers. The sad answer is, not much. Niceville feels like two loosely connected novels that should not have been forced into one. The bank robbery, the ex-FBI agent and the vindictive husband stories remain almost completely separate from the supernatural storyline featuring unexplained disappearances, family secrets, ancient evil and ghosts. The two halves aren’t even in the same genre – one is realist crime fiction, the other is horror. There are overlaps of course, but the strongest link between the two is formed when a character from the crime story becomes an important part of the horror plot. It’s also implied that these crimes are actually influenced by the ancient evil in Crater Sink. And that’s that.
Even worse is that, although the horror story is marketed as the main one, it’s woefully neglected. Too many questions are left unanswered. Too many otherworldly occurrences are hinted at and never described in full. The resolution seems far too easy and peaceful, while also having the effect of cutting the story short. It’s so unsatisfying. In the meantime, the bloody crime-novel plot mostly gets sorted out. It’s not that I disliked that part of the book, but it’s not the one I cared about most and, frankly, I think it could have been left out.
For my rating, I took into account the fact that I really enjoyed reading a large portion of the book, I found it wonderfully creepy at times, and Stroud managed to get me fully invested in most of his story. I just think he’d have done a better job writing two books instead of one.