Screenwriter Amanda Coe’s fiction debut, What They Do in the Dark, is distressing. It is also technically impressive, and while its subject matter—the wreckage resulting when adults fail children—is somber, its character portrayals are soaked in the warmth of honesty. Set in a working-class northern town in 1975 England, the book chronicles a gloomily pivotal spring/summer in the lives of 10-year-old schoolmates Gemma Barlow and Pauline Bright. The girls are not exactly friends, but are drawn together by their fractured souls. Their fates become hauntingly entwined.

Gemma is a good student from a middle-class home, whose perfect Saturdays are brought to a perfect close by watching “It’s Lallie,” the wholesome television vehicle of child star Lallie Paluza, with whom she is obsessed. By contrast, the ironically named Bright household is marked by hopelessness and decay, and abuse and neglect have turned Pauline, already a fearsome bully, into a time bomb of aggression. Their lives intersect when Lallie comes to town, starring in her first feature film as the victim of a pedophile. As the filming progresses, partially at Gemma and Pauline’s school, the girls’ lives change: Gemma’s mother leaves her father, moving her in with a new boyfriend, and Pauline’s wretched home life reaches terrible new lows.

Points-of-view alternate from Gemma and Pauline to Vera, an aging actress with a small part in the film; Frank, Lallie’s put-upon agent; and Quentin, a neurotic young American woman whose new job as a producer brings back childhood demons. Quentin wants to save Lallie from her apparently toxic stage mother and a future as a Hollywood casualty, but Quentin’s addictions (to chemicals and men) leave her ineffective. At the center of it all is the mystery of Lallie, whose life is surely troubled—the question is how darkly so.

A shocking ending breaks the book’s brewing storm but does not bring relief. In Coe’s vivid, well-crafted character details and expert plotting, the seemingly unimportant—but always enjoyable—proves crucial. The book is shot through with ambiguity and character ambivalence, but despite its lack of answers, it reads even better the second time around. A provocative achievement, What They Do in the Dark stays with you after the last page.

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