Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain have a history of co-authorship few thought were possible, and while they’ve had many popular hits, their most touted work remains Dead End Girl, the first entry in the Violet Darger series. The story follows Violet, at this point a rookie agent, on her first grand assignment, pitting her against a serial killer terrorizing the Midwest.
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L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain Throw Violet Darger into the Fire
The large state-based societies most of the world lives in today give us a sense of comfort and safety which could hardly have been achieved by any other means. However, as we’re about to see in Dead End Girl by L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain, the first book in the Violet Darger series, it doesn’t take a whole lot to turn a whole community upside down; only one man with truly deranged ambitions.
The story begins by introducing us to Violet Darger herself, still a rookie agent looking to land the one big assignment to move herself up the ladder. She gets the exact chance she’s searching for in a morbid turn of events when a dismembered corpse is a found in a grease dumpster next to a fast food joint in the rural American Midwest, shocking everyone, including the local law enforcement.
The community itself is up in arms and at a loss for answers, having no clue as to who among them could possibly commit such a brutal act, and perhaps just as importantly, why in the first place. Just like many people feared, the acts of brutality don’t stop there, with a second victim found near a roller rink, and a third one in a gutter.
Darger fears she has bitten off a lot more than she, or for that matter anyone else could possibly chew. The amount of physical evidence is virtually nonexistent, and what few clues it offers seem to lead nowhere but dead ends. Naturally, as they often do, the sole witnesses prove rather unreliable, and their accounts inconclusive at best.
However, she isn’t about to pack up and go home, methodically grasping after every thread and straw available to her. The acts aren’t random, the victims are all linked by dark secrets, and while Violet fights tooth and nail to unearth the slightest connection, the killer watches on through the news, revelling in his impunity and eager to continue his sordid work.
A Trial of Tension in Dead End Girl
There are all sorts of approaches authors can take to writing murder mystery novels, and I think the recent influx of hard-boiled police procedurals has skewed our collective expectations of the genre. We’ve gotten accustomed to detailed examinations of the entire spectrum of police work, and while there’s certainly much to be said for it, I still believe there is a lot of room left for novels such as Dead End Girl, where the focus is placed more on the building of tension.
I think it would help to address it right off the bat, but there were a few moments where the decisions made by the main character as well as some elements of the FBI seemed puzzling to me. However, I can understand how L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain felt the need to make their story-related choices based on their contributions to the thriller aspect of the novel.
“Burying the truth is what will break you. You stack up layer after layer of denial, and eventually, you buckle under the weight of it.”― L.T. Vargus & Tim McBain, Dead End Girl
In other words, I was easily able to forgive these missteps because ultimately, they made the plot more exciting without having too heavy of an impact on the rest of the story. There is some blood and gore to be found as well, but whether it’s a plus or a minus, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. If it’s not your cup of tea, rest assured you can easily skip the passages without losing out on much.
For the type of literary genre it fits into, Dead End Girl is fairly long at almost five hundred pages, and yet the fast pace is maintained from start to finish, with the infrequent shifts in tempo being largely negligible. It’s quite easy to swallow one page after the next, which I believe not only speaks to the quality of the mystery, but of the authors’ storytelling abilities as well.
In my opinion, McBain and Vargus succeeded in creating a palpable tension which Violet joins the case and we’re constantly reminded of its presence by glimpses at the killer’s deeds. There’s a sense anything could happen at any moment and the impression danger could lurk around every corner, which I believe are the hallmarks of absorbing serial killer thrillers.
An Ode to the Victims
While the bulk of the focus is indeed placed on the investigation of the case, it cannot help but overlap with the other major element which I believe Dead End Girl handles expertly: the examination of the victims, their lives, relatives, and how memories of them are exploited for sensationalist purposes. In other words, the victims are more than mere stepping stones to advance the plot forward.
They first appear to us as lifeless husks, canvases on which the serial killer marks his territory to further his own sordid goals. However, Darger spends a fair amount of time learning about each and every one of them taking us along for the ride as well, eventually coming to see them as more than simple victims.
They all had names, families, friends, hopes and dreams for the future… and we’re made to feel the weight of their loss on more than one occasion. We are shown how they become simple fodder for journalists of questionable integrity, how even in death they are never free from the sensationalist savagery of modern news cycles.
If anything, it made quite a powerful statement about our frankly-worrying fascination not only with death, but specifically with murder. To most, they’re riveting stories happening to other people… but to those other people, the stories are a tragic reality after which nothing can ever be the same again. The power of detachment often makes us forget their true gravity.
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Violet Darger also has some demons of her own to contend with, and we do learn bits and pieces about her past, no doubt to be elaborated on in future novels. While I didn’t necessarily find her likeable from A to Z, her flaws added to her individuality and did fit with her assigned position in the world of the book. She has a lot of room for growth, and a good amount of potential as a murder mystery protagonist.
The Final Verdict
Dead End Girl by L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain is an excellent serial killer mystery which equally succeeds in creating a tense story as well as a rich cast of characters, both dead and living, hiding many fascinating secrets for Violet Darger to uncover.
If you enjoy murder mysteries and fast-paced thrillers capable of capturing your attention for hours on end, then I think you should give this book a chance.
L.T. Vargus is an American author whose career has been spent, so far at least, co-writing various mysteries and thrillers with Tim McBain. Among the many works they’ve done together are the Detective Charlotte Winters as well as the The Victor Loshak Series, with lauded entries such as First Gone Girl, What Lies Beneath and Girl Under Water.
Tim McBain is an American author who has written numerous series alongside L.T. Vargus, namely Awake in the Dark, Violet Darger, and The Scattered and the Dead. Some of his more highly-appraised works include Dead End Girl, Killing Season, Five Days Past Mortem and Beyond Good & Evil.