Written by Chris Whitaker — Chris Whitaker’s debut, Tall Oaks, was a heady mix of humour and tragedy, with a very believable American setting even though the author is British. In his latest, Whitaker stays true to small town America and the theme of teenagers yearning for adventure while adults are lost in their worlds of grief, but he has moved his setting from California to the state of Alabama. The town is called Grace and there is a black storm cloud hanging over it for most of the book. Both literally and metaphorically.
Summer and Raine Ryan are 15-year-old twins. Summer is the good girl, a model student, a talented cello player, aiming for college and a way out of the town. Everyone thinks of them as the daughters of Joe Ryan, the man with a shady prison past and even shadier criminal connections.
Raine, on the other hand, has given up trying to prove she is better than her father. She’s the wild, rebellious teen, developing quite a reputation for flaunting her body.
Nevertheless, the two sisters are very close and when Summer goes missing, Raine is desperate to find her. Reluctantly, she enlists the help of schoolmates Noah and Purv, although they are not at all the kind of boys who would normally appeal to her. This endearing though often annoying teenage trio are so true to life it’s hard to believe the author is not the same age as they are. Their interactions with each other and with the people around them give some much-needed levity to what is otherwise a very dark tale indeed.
Summer is not the first to have gone missing. Five girls from the other side of the tracks (and the forest known as Hell’s Gate) have disappeared in the last few years. They were all good, church-going girls, and Sheriff Black is certainly haunted by the disappearances. Nevertheless, the police are reluctant to put it down to the work of a serial killer or kidnapper. How can a killer remain hidden in Grace, Alabama, where everyone seems to mind other people’s business?
Chris Whitaker really has a knack for dealing with an ensemble cast, like a maestro conducting a choir with many voices. He paints a veridic picture of a rural community forgotten by the modern world, where each character has memorable traits. One pastor preaches fire and brimstone ‘be-angry-and-do-not-sin-Jesus’ but has a stroke, and his replacement tries to be more inclusive ‘love-endures-Jesus’ but is drifting apart from his wife and breaking down with grief at the loss of his child. The hot-headed ex-con Joe Ryan mobilises the community in the search of his daughter, and tries to find someone to blame, with potentially dangerous consequences. Yet even he has moments of humanity, sharing some of his fears with the compassionate policeman Black, who put him away, and whom himself has taken to drink. Then there is the albino, Angel, the fiery pastor’s son, a school janitor, a loner and a bit slow-witted. He’d be the ideal patsy in a story like this… but is he less innocent than he looks?
The story is complex and with so many characters being introduced in quick succession, readers will need to keep their wits about them to follow the crumbs of clues laid out throughout the book. An apparently throwaway remark becomes important in a later scene. Blink, and you might miss an important development. Above all, enjoy the scenes of genuine support and affection between Noah and Purv, two youngsters battered by fate, yet still hopeful of making their way in life. An intelligent and emotionally affecting crime novel which defies easy categorisation.
For different takes on American rural noir, try Saul Black, Elizabeth Brundage or Donald Ray Pollock. For something different, The Forgotten Girls is an excellent French crime series about missing teenage girls, free to watch on Walter Presents.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars