Stranger Things is returning to screens this summer for its third season and it seems that Netflix is pulling out all the stops to promote it. With multiple novels and comic mini-series, the Stranger Things universe just seems to be growing and growing. And, here’s the thing: these Stranger Things novels are really turning out to be pretty enjoyable reads. I loved the first one, Suspicious Minds (written by Gwenda Bond) and I quite enjoyed this second one, Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s not quite as spectacular as the first one – and it doesn’t quite reveal anything as shocking or interesting as that book – but it ends up being a pretty solid crime novel with a Stranger Things twist. (Mild spoilers for the novel follow.)
“Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Adam Christopher
Christmas, Hawkins, 1984. All Chief Jim Hopper wants is to enjoy a quiet first Christmas with Eleven, but his adopted daughter has other plans. Over Hopper’s protests, she pulls a cardboard box marked “New York” out of the basement—and the tough questions begin. Why did Hopper leave Hawkins all those years ago? What does “Vietnam” mean? And why has he never talked about New York?
Although he’d rather face a horde of demogorgons than talk about his own past, Hopper knows that he can’t deny the truth any longer. And so begins the story of the incident in New York—the last big case before everything changed. . . .
Summer, New York City, 1977. Hopper is starting over after returning home from Vietnam. A young daughter, a caring wife, and a new beat as an NYPD detective make it easy to slip back into life as a civilian. But after shadowy federal agents suddenly show up and seize the files about a series of brutal, unsolved murders, Hopper takes matters into his own hands, risking everything to discover the truth.
Soon Hopper is undercover among New York’s notorious street gangs. But just as he’s about to crack the case, a blackout rolls across the boroughs, plunging Hopper into a darkness deeper than any he’s faced before.
This novel, like Suspicious Minds, focuses on the backstory of one of the characters of Stranger Things. This time, it’s James Hopper (played by David Harbour in the series). The novel opens on the day after Christmas, 1984, with Eleven asking Hopper to tell her a story about his past. After some persuasion, he eventually relents and tells this story. The majority of the novel is the story itself, a case that Hopper worked on while in New York, and the case ends up being pretty interesting. It starts out as a serial killer committing oddly ritualistic murders and quickly morphs into something much bigger and a bit weirder.
Don’t go into this novel expecting any grand revelations about Hopper’s past. We don’t learn what happened to his wife or his daughter in this book, two characters noticeably missing from the TV series but given decently-sized roles in the novel. Unlike Suspicious Minds – a novel that set out to reveal all the secrets behind Eleven’s mom’s past, Darkness on the Edge of Town is content with simply telling the story of one of Hopper’s past cases and this isn’t really a bad thing because the case it tells is a damn interesting one. Written like a crime novel, the mystery at the heart of Darkness on the Edge of Town unfolds at a decent pace. The audience is thrown into the case several weeks after it began – a wise decision from author Adam Christopher – and the pace never slows down from there.
This mystery isn’t really one that could be figured out by readers as they read it. It’s less of a whodunnit and more of an insight as to how Hopper operated as a detective. Even so, it’s a lot of fun watching the various elements of the case come together at the end, with everything getting explained in a pretty satisfying way. I do wish the mystery had done a bit more with some of the weirder elements that were initially introduced – this is a serial killer who kills people in a ritualistic manner in order to bring about something called “The Day of the Serpent” and then the book never really goes as far as you’d like it to with that element of the story – especially when considering it’s set within the Stranger Things universe. This isn’t really a big problem, though; just more of a personal taste. Overall, it’s a well-written mystery that unfolds in an engaging, surprising, and satisfying way.
As previously mentioned, the novel sets up a framing story in which Eleven asks Hopper to tell her something about his past and we’re reading the story he tells her. However, the entirety of the novel is written in a third-person point-of-view, which does break that illusion a bit. I feel like it was a missed opportunity to not have the majority of the novel told in a first-person point-of-view to better tie in the bulk of the story with the framing device but, again, it’s a minor nitpick. The writing is superb, with plenty of time being spent on taking us into Hopper’s head and allowing us to see how he’s feeling and how he thinks his way through situations. Christopher should be pleased with how well-executed the writing in this novel is.
Mystery novels live and die off of the strength of the main character and the mystery. As we’ve already discussed, Darkness on the Edge of Town has a pretty good mystery, so it all comes down to how good the main character is. Hopper was always one of the more interesting characters on the show because of his mysterious past and that remains true here. While I wish the novel had gone a bit further into revealing some of Hopper’s mysteries (like what happened to his wife and daughter!), it’s extremely nice getting to see a younger version of Hopper who still has some kind of hope in the world left. He’s cynical, but not quite as cynical as he was in the first season of the show. Here, we get to see him in his element, solving a huge case and risking everything in order to do so. Christopher captures Hopper’s voice extremely well and nails the characterization just as well. Hopper is the obvious main character here, but the other characters are just as well-written, even if they don’t play a particularly big role in the story. Christopher is great at writing his characters and all that work definitely pays off.
All in all, Darkness at the Edge of Town is another deeply enjoyable entry in the growing series of Stranger Things novels. While it’s significantly more grounded in reality than the previous entry and doesn’t contain as many massive revelations as that first book, it’s still a great exploration of a fan-favorite character. At the heart of the story is an interesting, well-written character in James Hopper and an engaging, surprising, and satisfying mystery. It’s a well-written, well-paced, fast read and it should easily please fans of the series who are craving any new Stranger Things stories.
4 out of 5 wands.