Under the Beetle's Cellar

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This book I got sometime back in the 90's, and now, probably 20 years later it worked its way to the top of to-be-read list. (Looking at that list gives me somber thoughts about mortality.) Probably I bought it because it was nominated for a bunch of awards, as the author's Wikipedia page shows. I seem to remember reading another book in this series by Ms. Walker, but if I did, it was before I kept track of my reading.

The weird thing about that: after publishing four novels in the 1990's, to (apparently) critical acclaim, Mary Willis Walker seems to have stopped writing. Why? I took a few whacks at Google-seeking the reason, but came up blank. 'Tis a mystery! But in any case,…

The book is more thriller than mystery. Right from page one, we know the terrible premise: ten kids plus their school bus driver have been taken hostage by a wacko apocalyptic cult leader, held prisoner underground in his heavily-armed compound.

I say "taken hostage", but that's not quite right. Their presence is being used to stave off an assault by law enforcement, sure enough. But the cult leader's actual purpose in holding them is worse than that.

Enter the hero, Molly Cates, a journalist for a Texas magazine. She had previously done a story on the cult, and she gets drawn into the standoff. Could she have knowledge that might illuminate the twisted psychology of the leader? Could she bring her investigative powers to bear to help find a lever that might be used to free the kids? (Spoiler: yes, and mostly yes.)

A very decent page-turner, all in all. Ms. Walker avoids a too-saccharine conclusion. So be warned about that, if that's the kind of ending you prefer.