The Vanishing Season
When it comes to mysteries, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve grown a little jaded. I read a lot of them, so it takes something pretty great to really wow me, and while Joanna Schaffhausen’s début, The Vanishing Season, isn’t the most original mystery I’ve ever read, the author’s ability to craft a gripping story filled with fully-realized characters and a few shocking twists makes it a book I’m more than happy to recommend.
Before I get into my actual review, I want to let potential readers know that this is a very dark and violent story. True, readers of thrillers involving serial killers probably expect a certain amount of violence, but I think The Vanishing Season is darker than most. There are a couple of scenes that had me cringing, and I normally have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to these things, so, if you’re particularly sensitive to descriptions of violence or body parts, you might want to give this book a pass.
Ellery Hathaway is no stranger to the twisted minds of serial killers, and it’s not because she’s a police officer. When she was fourteen, Ellie was abducted by Francis Michael Coben, a sadistic man responsible for the deaths of sixteen young women. He kept Ellery locked in a dark, fetid closet for days, but FBI Agent Reed Markham rescued her in the nick of time.
Ever since that day, Ellie has worked hard to distance herself from her past. She moved away from Chicago, and now lives and works in Woodbury, a sleepy little town in Massachusetts where serious crimes are practically unheard of. She’s told no one of her connection to one of the most infamous serial killers in recent history, and she fervently hopes no one will uncover her secret.
She’s been in Woodbury for nearly four years, and Ellie has become convinced the town isn’t quite as perfect as its residents would like to think. Every year since her arrival, someone has gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Ellie is sure the disappearances are linked, but her superiors dismiss her fears, preferring to view each incident as a separate case, but Ellie has information she isn’t sharing with her fellow officers. Each disappearance takes place near her birthday, and someone sends her a card to commemorate each one. This might not seem like much, but no one who is currently part of Ellie’s life knows her date of birth, and she is convinced the cards are connected to the missing people. Feeling desperate for answers, Ellie makes the decision to contact Agent Markham. She hasn’t seen him since he rescued her, but she’s sure his expertise will help her uncover the truth before someone else disappears.
Reed Markham is far from the hero of Ellie’s memories. The Coben case rocketed him to the top of his field, but he hasn’t remained there. His marriage is failing, and he’s on a leave of absence from the bureau after seriously botching an investigation. He drinks far too much, and is basically going through the motions, not really living at all. He’s understandably surprised when Ellie contacts him out of the blue, not to mention unsure of his ability to help her. Still, he feels a strange sort of connection to the wounded teenaged girl he saved all those years ago, and he agrees to travel to Woodbury to take a look at what’s going on there.
As soon as Ellie and Reed begin looking into the disappearances together, it becomes clear to the reader that things are not at all as they appear to be. Everyone in town is keeping secrets, and some of those secrets might prove to be deadlier than either Reed or Ellie could imagine. Ms. Schaffhausen ramps up the tension in small increments as Ellie and Reed get closer to the truth, making this the kind of book readers will hate to put down.
Both Ellie and Reed proved difficult to really like. They’re deeply flawed people, and while these flaws make them seem more human, they also lead to some seriously questionable decision-making that had me scratching my head in bewilderment on several occasions. I certainly don’t expect the characters I read about to be perfect, since that would be quite boring, but I want to understand the reasons behind the things they do or say, and I couldn’t always do that here. Neither Ellie or Reed seems particularly wedded to following police procedure, and I found myself a little mystified by their actions and how they would play out over time.
I also found the identity of the villain to be pretty predictable. I had it figured out about halfway through the story, and while I enjoyed watching Reed and Ellie learn the truth, I would have been happier if I could have discovered it along with them. Even so, Ms. Schaffhausen does throw in a few really awesome twists near the end of the story that totally changed my understanding of previous events.
Despite its flaws, I found The Vanishing Season engrossing. Ellie and Reed are characters who will remain with me for a long time to come, and an author who can create such thought-provoking characters is someone I definitely want to keep an eye on.