Written by Julia Heaberlin — Julia Heaberlin’s can’t-put-it-down follow-up to her bestselling Black-Eyed Susans is the ultimate amateur sleuth tale.
Grace is 24, living Central Texas. Twelve years ago, her only sister Rachel disappeared and Grace is obsessed with finding out what happened to her. It’s a solo quest, as her father “let his heart stop” and her mother has faded into a glass of whiskey.
The first clue she found was a photograph taped to the bottom of their attic stairs. The man who took the picture of two ethereal girls was photographer Carl Feldman, later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance. Grace has investigated and analysed many such cases over the years and believes she can link them to Carl through his photographs. After the trial, Carl disappeared, although suspicions about him never did. Heaberlin does a masterful job handling backstory. It weaves seamlessly through the narrative, enlightening, coloring, providing motivation.
Now, some years later, he’s been found wandering and confused. Diagnosed with dementia, he lives in a halfway house run by Mrs T. Posing as Carl’s daughter, Grace tries to persuade Mrs T to let her take him away on a vacation of sorts. In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid enough and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to and to toy with her mercilessly. It’s a battle of wits, and they both know it. After a while, repellent as Carl is, you may grudgingly admire him.
Grace isn’t so naïve as to drive around Texas with a possible serial killer unprepared. She’s worked with a personal safety trainer who’s readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. She knows how to shoot. She can hold her breath underwater for astonishing lengths. She knows how to tell whether he’s been in her room or browsed her cell phone history.
Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood survival notebook, which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organised determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.
Mrs T gives her 10 days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house or the police will be called. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel and hotel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? She’s not his daughter? She’s kidnapped him? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And he’s sneaky. He sees ghosts and talks to them. When Mrs T said the other residents don’t much like Carl’s friends, Grace didn’t realise they were hallucinations.
They visit the abandoned Victorian home where a woman named Vickie disappeared. Although her body was never found, there was enough blood that she was declared a murder victim. They visit Galveston, where a college student named Violet went for a midnight swim with friends and never returned. The trip winds on, day by day. Around day four or five, you may wonder whether the inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does.
Heaberlin’s writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In Carl’s photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden. Context is false or missing. It is what it isn’t. His own photographs, in a famous book Grace carries with her, suggest the key to his mysteries, she is certain.
The story takes on additional menace when Grace and Carl realise they’re being followed. She asks herself whether by poking around, she’s awakened a hibernating killer, or has she aided someone else bent on revenge. Those logical possibilities are abandoned when it becomes clear that while she’s been making plans about Carl, other people have been making plans about her.
This risky roadtrip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out?
For more missing sister crime fiction, try Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl and Chris Whitaker’s All the Wicked Girls. You’ll find a photographic theme playing out in The Photographer by Craig Robertson.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars