Village of the Lost Girls

Written by Agustin Martínez, translated by Frank Wynne — This missing persons thriller, with its twists racing through the hairpin bends of the Pyrenees, is a debut novel by one of Spain’s most prolific crime screenwriters, and it shows. Its opening, when schoolgirls Lucia and Ana go missing in a snowstorm, has a cinematic feel as we’re plunged immediately into the mystery that rocked the tourist village of Monteperdido. 

Fast forward five years and as a glacier melts, a car crashes and blood spills from the dying driver. A girl stumbles from the wreckage. It is Ana, now aged 16.

The first 72 hours of the investigation by the local Guardia Civil in the rural village after the disappearances is considered a disaster by Inspector Santiago Bain of the Polícia Nacional in Madrid. Now as Ana has reappeared, he and Assistant Inspector Sara Campos of the Family Protection Unit arrive, much to the consternation of Victor Gamero the local sergeant. The hunt for the girls’ kidnapper is resumed with urgency – is it the dead driver, and is Lucia still alive? Conflict between the national and local police flares up, not helped by Campos accidentally shooting Gamero’s dog.

The cops aren’t the only ones falling out. There’s family, spouse and neighbour feuds and mountains of bad feeling in the remote and insular community, where it seems everyone is blaming someone, and a huge cast of suspects. At 500 pages you may suspect that Martínez has prepared the way for a six-part television series. There are lots of false clues and treks through the mountains and plenty of back stories about characters to weave in.

Ana is not telling anyone who abducted her and may or may not know where she was held. She describes a refuge hut and the sheer cold of winter and heat of summer and one or two landmarks that could be anywhere in the mountainous morass. She tells of how she was ignored as the masked jailer spent all his time and attention on Lucia. And Ana’s testimony conflicts with every retelling, and the glimpses we get in her flashbacks.

There are more flashbacks told about the flaky damaged cop, Sara Campos, who has a close relationship with her boss and a painful past, which hold up the action somewhat, but ultimately mirror what the missing girls have experienced, we suspect. She is plagued with recurring nightmares of a faceless man with a gun at her bedside as she lies helpless and naked. As she falls apart you may feel empathy and hope she carries on. Victor Gamero becomes an ally, which helps.

The media of course are on it and there’s betrayal as a family member speaks out and plenty of despicable villagers milking the attention from tourists to make a quick buck while the sun shines. And there are so many local oddballs and potential suspects that it gets confusing at times, but eventually this police procedural hurtles down a black run towards whoever is behind the kidnappings.

The translation from the Spanish by Frank Wynne, who also worked on Pierre Lemaitre’s novels in French, is excellent, as is the description of the mountain atmosphere with its fogs and storms and vast, forbidding landscape.

You may feel that you have travelled this path before, watching the second series of The Missing on TV or reading The Girl in the Fog by Donato Carrisi, in which a schoolgirl goes missing in the Italian Alps; cue the media storm and mountain tourists. They feature girls who return so changed by their abduction that their unreliable witness status and motivations are questioned, along with those of the suspects. Tales about missing girls being held against their will are much in vogue. Take a look at our recent reviews  on the subject. For my money, no kidnap thriller quite beats Jodie Comer in the TV drama Thirteen, who escapes captivity and gives a compelling and plausible take on how to adjust to real life, without the need of flashbacks.

Martínez has said his story was prompted when he was on holiday and overheard local people in the Pyrenees talking about the real case of a missing girl. Somehow this reads a little more like a novelisation of a screen drama.

Quercus
Print/Kindle
£7.49

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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