It’s hard to pick up a contemporary book these days and not run smack into small town living. Most books capture the small towns we want to live in, a sort of Cheers with homes and streets, where everybody knows your name and is interested in your life. Few capture the insulated, isolated world that small towns can actually be – where the name everyone knows is your high school nickname and you are still being judged for things you did at ten. That can be a harsher, more dangerous world and it is there that Lisa Unger takes us.
Psychologist Maggie Cooper and her husband, Detective Jones Cooper, know the dark underbelly that the Hollows hides but are content to make their lives there, to raise their son Marshall in the same place in which they had been raised. As a therapist, Maggie knows that the confined world in which she lives gives her an access to the lives and histories of her clients that the anonymity of a big city would deny her. And Jones knows that having everyone’s history in his memory saves him hours of leg work. The ties between past and present become painful and frightening though when a young girl disappears, echoing a disappearance that the town had tried very hard to forget.
Right away Maggie is concerned how this new disappearance will affect her family. The missing young woman is her son’s girlfriend and suspicion initially turns to him. “I know how a moment can spiral out of control,” Jones says to a shocked Maggie as he searches their son’s room for incriminating evidence, “How the consequences of one careless action can cost you everything.” As Maggie tries to resolve how such a statement affects both the past and the present, she begins to uncover secrets better left behind. And discovers that secrets can do damage, long after the people who were most affected by them are gone. She also learns that sometimes our own minds hold secrets we never knew were there.
Lisa Unger captures perfectly the dangers of solving a crime in a place where people are allowed all too little privacy – and are desperate to hold on to that they have. The tale primarily centers on Maggie and Jones. It shows how the events take them back to what had occurred while they were in high school and how it is a time they would both rather avoid. As the investigation drags on, Jones as lead detective continues to follow clues which lead to a darker and darker conclusion. This pressure cooker situation helps us get a good feel for the characters – who they are and how they fit into what happened. I really liked that the characters were formed by their setting; there was a sense that what happened could only have happened in this particular way in this particular place.
Maggie is an easy to like (and empathize with) character. A loving mother and wife and dedicated professional, she is the quintessential good girl who grew up to be a solid, middle class citizen. But Maggie is no prude, she went through a wild phase herself and understands the rebellion she sees in the teens around her. She provides the cornerstone of sanity in a town that is rapidly losing its grip.
Jones has all of the traits you expect of a small town detective – a bit bigoted, hard nosed and straight laced. But then you start seeing other layers, motives and reasons and realize what a solid person he really is.
There is a sweet romance – brief but real and meaningful between two very ordinary secondary characters – and the added love story between Maggie and Jones. While it is assuredly not a romance novel or even romantic suspense, the characterization is strong and the love stories that fit into their lives told in a sweet manner.
The star of this book is the small town living. The author does such an amazing job of capturing what that cloistered world is really like, how living there affects the people, that the town itself becomes a character. And the people are very real. They have ordinary jobs and do ordinary things. No super SEALS or army rangers here. Some of the details might even seem a tad boring, but you care about what is happening because you realize that even the littlest thing in the individual can affect deeply the collective that is The Hollows.
This is a sleeper of a mystery. It may not keep you up at night but it will keep you turning the pages as you try to figure out just what the heck is going on. I recommend it to any fan of the mystery genre.