Forgotten: A Novel
In Mariah Stewart’s Forgotten, a murderous pedophile manipulates people from behind bars. Long-lost graves are unearthed, and new victims are found. It’s not graphic, but if you hate stories where children’s lives are threatened, you’ll probably want to avoid this book. Also, if you haven’t followed Mariah Stewart’s books, then like me, you might get confused by some of the returning characters.
Madeline Williams is dying, and she wants the body of her missing son, Christopher, to be recovered so that they can be buried next to each other. However, the suspected killer, Sheldon Woods, is serving a life sentence. He evaded the death penalty by confessing to raping and murdering thirteen boys, and he has refused to confess to any more murders.
FBI Agent Portia Cahill gets the job of talking to the manipulative Woods. Only after his terms are met does he give Portia the location of Christopher Williams. But when Portia finds Christopher’s grave, she and local crime scene technicians discover that another boy was buried with him. Portia works with Woods’ defense attorney, James Cannon, to learn who this boy was and find more graves. Even worse, a copycat killer starts providing them with fresh victims.
An FBI agent and the defense attorney who once helped a murderous pedophile escape the death penalty – talk about an unlikely pairing. In the character of Jim Cannon, Stewart showed the other side of justice – from why he got the deal for Woods to why he became a defense attorney. He’s a nice guy, easy to get along with. Portia was harder to warm up to at first. Maybe that’s because she is a continuing character who has been in previous Mariah Stewart novels, so she comes with a lot of baggage I wasn’t familiar with. She is a former undercover FBI agent who was transferred to a stateside investigative unit because her cover was blown when a tabloid published her photograph. At first, she comes across as whiny and uninterested in the work, but once she gets more involved, she loses her attitude and I warmed up to her. Yet despite the conflict between their professions, the romance between Portia and Jim didn’t light up for me. At times, their romantic banter got in my way. When they take a ferry ride together to talk to Woods’ brother, I became impatient as they discussed where to sit on the ferry or their explorations of the island. I wanted them to get back to the crimes, not chatter on about the Old Bay Seasoning. The characters in this book chatter a lot. There were times I was relieved to end up back in Sheldon Woods’ viewpoint.
Sheldon Woods is a manipulative psychopath, and this makes him a strong match for Portia. It also heightens the feeling of triumph when Portia outmatches him. The revelations about his crimes and his background made it clear that Stewart is familiar with the psychology of real-life serial killers. As happens in real life, Woods also has fans, such as a religious woman who believes she is his soul mate, and those fans are almost as strange as he is. There is a twist as Portia and Jim uncover details about Woods’ shadowy past, and the copycat killer is someone you wouldn’t suspect.
My biggest complaint was that the book kept going back to characters and incidents from previous books. There are a number of supporting characters – Portia’s twin sister Miranda and her sister’s fiancé Will (the leads of Dead Even; her boss John Mancini (the lead of Voices Carry), as well as crime scene technicians, Jim’s sister and nephew, local police, etc. Sometimes, the dialogue between these characters got in the way of the main story. For example, Portia calls the retired profiler who worked on the Woods case:
“My name is Portia Cahill. I’m a special agent with John Mancini’s unit, and I…”
“How is John these days?”
“He’s very well. I called because…”
“And that pretty wife of his?”
“Genna’s fine. They’re both fine.”
“Good, good. Now, which of my old cases are you calling me about?”
By this time, I was thinking, “I thought he’d never ask!” If you’re a fan of the previous books, you’ll probably enjoy learning that Genna is fine. As a new reader, however, I often asked myself “Who are these people and why are they chatting about Genna, not to mention Andrew and Connor and Mia? And what’s ‘the Shields thing’?”
Beyond that, I had another quibble. Jim is disgusted by the reporters and crime writers who wrote about Woods. (“It had disgusted him then and it disgusted him now that anyone would want to ride on the demon’s coattails, cash in on the misery and heartbreak Woods had caused so many.”) I know that just because Jim believes reporters and crime writers are ghouls, that doesn’t mean Mariah Stewart believes it. Still, because one of the main suspects was a would-be crime writer, I thought true crime writers were being given a bad rap – as usual. Why do they all have to be lumped together with the ghouls? I’ve met real true crime writers online, and they are consummate professionals who do incredible amounts of research and care about justice for the victims. It also struck me as ironic that a serial killer novel was giving off the impression that people who read or write about serial killers are ghouls.
Overall, Forgotten was a suspenseful read, but it would have been more fast-paced if it hadn’t relied so much on background from previous books. I know that when they write continuing characters, authors have to give them “series arcs” so that fans can see the characters change from book to book. At the same time, I wish they would have mercy on new readers and keep them from getting lost in the maze of characters.