This reading group guide for Darkness All Around includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Doug Magee. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Sean Collins is a recovering alcoholic, trying to put his life back together after years on the streets. He is also recovering from Amnesia and is haunted by graphic memories of a dead woman named Carol—a woman he used to know. When he discovers that Carol really was murdered and that the accused murderer might have given a false confession, he fears that he is to blame. He returns to his hometown of Braden to turn himself in.
Risa, Sean’s ex-wife, has not only remarried but had him declared dead after he went missing eleven years ago. When he returns to Braden, it turns her world upside down. Is her ex-husband, the father of her son, a killer? Is her current husband Alan, Sean’s erstwhile best friend, the man she believes him to be? Who really killed Carol? The answers will surprise everyone.TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. At the opening of the novel Risa is plagued by a sense of looming disaster, which is borne out by events. Have you ever had similar intuitions?
2. Risa is alarmed by her son’s violence during his football game, and again during the fight with Frankie Robich. Is Kevin’s aggression understandable, given the context of both incidents, or is Risa right to be worried?
3. Sean and Risa both worry that Kevin may inherit the suicidal tendencies of Sean’s family. Alcoholism is also believed to have a genetic link. Do you believe the right upbringing is enough to counteract these kinds of tendencies, or is nature stronger than nurture?
4. Sean accuses Braden’s law enforcement of bullying G.G. Trask into a false confession. What were their motives for doing so? Do you think they ever truly believed G.G. was guilty?
5. Alan and Carol were drawn into Risa and Sean’s relationship by Sean’s addiction, and both betrayed their friendships. While Alan was actively hindering Sean’s recovery, Carol believed she was helping. Put yourself in Risa’s place: how would you feel about Carol’s attempts to fix her husband?
6. Who is a more convincing suspect: Alan, or Sean?
7. Did you see the twist coming? When did you first suspect that Henry was involved?
8. How absolute is the division between Henry Saltz and John Goetz? Do you believe that Henry truly is unaware of John’s actions?
9. Both of the book’s villains are motivated by love gone wrong: Alan’s for Risa and John’s for Carol. How does this affect your feelings about their guilt? Do the motives for their actions change anything?
10. Were you surprised by Risa’s decision to leave Alan and re-commit to Sean? Compare the two men: Alan, reliable but a liar’ and Sean, a wild-card in recovery. What would you have done?
11. Sean is granted forgiveness by both Risa and Kevin. Does he deserve it?
12. At the novel’s conclusion, G.G. Trask still believes he killed Carol. How do you predict he will deal with this guilt? ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Sean suffers from amnesia, a condition widely depicted in film. Have group members come prepared to discuss their favorite depiction of amnesia and its consequences. Some suggestions that may be of interest: Unknown White Male
, a documentary; Memento
, a thriller involving anterograde amnesia; Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind
, a surreal love story involving chosen amnesia.
2. Braden is a football town much like Odessa, Texas, depicted in the book Friday Night Lights
by H.G. Bissinger (which inspired the film and TV show). Discuss the books and/or the adaptations, and consider what role school sports plays in your own town.
3. Henry Saltz suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID), also known as multiple personality disorder. Consider another novel featuring DID as the group’s next read—for example, Thr3e
by Ted Dekker or Sybil
by Flora Rheta Schreiber.
4. Author Doug Magee is a photographer and screenwriter as well as a novelist. Check out his website, DougMagee.com, for more details as well as discussions and giveaways!A CONVERSATION WITH DOUG MAGEE What method do you use to plot out your books? Are you ever surprised by the turns the narrative takes?
I don’t outline my books extensively. I usually know where the story will begin, where it will end, and some plot points in between when I start to write. So that does give me a number of surprises as the writing progresses. In Darkness All Around
, for instance, Alan became much more actively involved in Sean’s disappearance from Braden than I had originally thought. Memory and its vagaries play an important role in your novel, demonstrated in Warren’s aging wanderings, Sean’s Amnesia, and Henry’s dissociation. Was there a real-life incident that led you to explore this theme?
Yes. I’m getting old! No, there was no one incident that prompted the exploration. I’m fascinated by the mind’s plasticity, by aberrations in brain chemistry that lead to odd perceptions, and by the way in which our minds easily lead us astray.Both of your mysteries take place in small towns. What is it about small town dynamics that you find so compelling?
Technically, as a writer, small towns reduce the number of variables in the story, making it easier to handle plot and character. But even in big cities you can find neighborhoods and areas that act like small towns. What most fascinates me about these settings is what people don’t say to each other. These things are often not secrets, per se, but omissions, assumptions, and even politenesses. There seems to be a lot of communication in the town of Braden, but I suspect a lot of people knew G.G. Trask was innocent before Sean returned.
Do you ever feel guilty for putting your characters in such dire straits?
No. That’s my job. Their job is to find a way out.Darkness All Around depends on three medical conditions: Alcoholism, Amnesia, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. What kind of research did you do to get the details right?
I don’t depend a lot on detailed research when writing fiction. I think too many specifics can actually take the reader away from the more emotional aspects of diseases, etc. Also, over the years I’ve been exposed to people suffering these conditions and made many mental notes about them as I went along.
Kevin’s aggressive actions during his football game worry Risa, and his football training leads him to put Frankie in the hospital. Does Risa’s concern reflect your own opinion of sport-sanctioned violence?
I played high school and college football. I wasn’t very good but I enjoyed the game then. All three of my sons are basketball players and I’m happy about that. The sport’s emphasis on violence was something I accepted when I played the game but now seems to me an unnecessary danger.
You have written nonFiction and screenplays as well as mysteries. Does your writing process change at all from one to the next?
It does. Fiction for me requires a very steady, day-by-day, workmanlike approach. I actually write to a word count. Screenplays are done more in bursts. Nonfiction is often a process of writing, research, more writing.
You state on your website that you are opposed to the death penalty. How do your personal politics inform your fiction?
I don’t want my fiction to carry messages, but neither do I want it to traffic in stereotypes about our criminal justice system just for the sake of fulfilling a formula. I believe a lot of people see through the standard rhetoric surrounding punishment in our society, understand that things aren’t as black and white as some would have us believe. So I like to have my characters, at least some of them, reflect this skepticism.Which character was the most difficult to write? Which was the easiest?
I think this is a writing cliché but for me the hardest characters to write are the protagonists, the easiest are the minor characters. Risa, in Darkness All Around
, was difficult because she was a woman and she was being whipsawed by circumstances so much. A character like Walter or Fu or Hon is much easier to brushstroke quickly.Who are your influences as an author? What do you read when you’re writing?
I’m a recent convert to mystery and suspense fiction. I was an English major in college and concentrated on early 20th century British fiction, D.H. Lawrence, Beckett, James Joyce. But I’m happily going through Chandler, Hammett, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and others now and when I’m writing I love to have Robert B. Parker along as a sidekick.