Weighted with a lifetime of loss and unanswered questions, McHugh’s novel has a gothic sensibility, the unresolved mysteries of past and present hovering over the summer of a seventeen-year-old girl’s discoveries. All of her life lived in the shadow of a mother who disappeared when she was a baby, Lucy Dane knows only that she is the image of her mother, Lila, a painful reminder to a father who has never stopped grieving. Lucy’s yearning to know her mother’s fate has only gotten more intense with the years. The days of her father’s absence at work fuel her sense of urgency.
The horrifying discovery of the body of lifelong friend Cheri, victim of both mental disability and the neglect of a dysfunctional home life, has exacerbated Lucy’s awareness of the place where she has grown up. Henbane, in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, is a self-contained, everyone knows everyone else’s business sort of place. This familiarity has been comforting in her youth, but now Lucy senses the dark secrets that have been part of her family history. Cheri’s murder inspires a vague guilt in Lucy, who wishes she had been a better friend, had paid more attention to a girl no one cared about. Meeting with best friend Bess to formulate a plan of action, Lucy thinks the opportunity to work in her uncle’s store this summer may give her access to records Crete Dane keeps locked in his office.
What Lucy doesn’t anticipate is that she will meet Daniel Cole at Crete’s store. The young man awakens the first stirrings of romance in Lucy’s heart, a situation that doesn’t go unnoticed by Crete, who deals with the budding romance by firing Cole—but not until after the pair have found troubling remnants of the dead girl in a trailer they are cleaning out on Crete’s property. There’s nothing significant enough to take to the police, but Lucy is convinced Cheri has been in the trailer—which Crete has had removed from the farm. Crete’s reaction to Lucy’s involvement with Daniel suggests the deeper waters surrounding Lila’s abrupt disappearance years earlier, when she was newly married to Carl and enthralled with her baby daughter.
In chapters that alternate between Lila’s arrival in Henbane for a job advertised in a newspaper and Lucy’s investigation, a grim tale of obsession, greed and manipulation evolves, one based in human depravity and nurtured in silence. With no family ties but a series of foster homes, Lila wants only to fulfill her contract with Crete and save money. She toils long hours either at his store or on the ranch, assigned spare living quarters in a remodeled garage and happy to have private accommodations. She never imagines falling in love with Crete’s younger brother, Carl, or finding marriage and family in Henbane, a future that proves too good to be true for a young woman who has known only hardship and little kindness in her young life.
McHugh builds her novel to a climax well-tailored to a protagonist who has cared little for others, a monster hidden behind a façade of affection and devotion to family; beautiful Lila is the one flaw in his perfectly regulated plan. Peopled with hardscrabble folk who often turn a blind eye to those they have no power to oppose, the town of Henbane distrusts the beautiful Lila and offers no safe haven. The same place, years later, has little to offer in the brutal murder of an unwanted girl. Though Lucy’s naiveté is sometimes grating (especially as a plot device to ratchet up the danger) the author successfully builds a scenario based in murder, greed and deceit, the purging of the past freeing Lucy and her father from the long nightmare of Lila’s disappearance. Moody, atmospheric and relevant, The Weight of Blood is just that—the sins of the past not easily put to rest.