“The Child Finder” by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder by Rene DenfeldEntertainment Weekly occasionally runs pie chart book reviews, and I’m tempted to draw my own chart for Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, comparing it to two other 2017 books: Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and Peter Heller’s Celine. Since all three books were published last year, any similarities are purely coincidental. But like the title character in Celine, Denfeld’s Naomi is a uniquely gifted private investigator who only takes one kind of case: reuniting parents and children. And there’s a heavy fairy-tale element in the book, as there was in The Marsh King’s Daughter. In this case, instead of Hans Christian Andersen, we get the Russian story of The Snow Maiden.

Naomi was herself a lost child who escaped from an abusive situation (one she remembers very little about) and was raised by a loving foster mother. Now she devotes her life to finding missing kids, often solving cases that have stumped law enforcement agencies. In The Child Finder, she is asked to look into the case of Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago at the age of five. Her parents had taken her to the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, planning to cut down a Christmas tree; in a moment of inattention, she vanished, and a snowstorm covered any tracks she may have made.

“No one could survive for long in the woods. Especially not a five-year-old girl dressed in a pink parka… Hope was a beautiful thing, Naomi thought, looking up through the silent trees, the clean, cold air filling her lungs. It was the most beautiful part of her work when it was rewarded with life. The worst when it brought only sorrow.”

The reader learns early on that Madison did survive—she was found by a deaf-mute trapper, Mr. B, who takes her to his remote cabin and keeps her there, imprisoned in a cellar secured by a locked trapdoor. Madison’s favorite fairy tale was The Snow Maiden, or as she knows it, The Snow Girl; she begins to believe that she had been “freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.” Over the years, she gradually works to win the trust of Mr. B, and sometimes gets to sleep in his bed—yes, there is definitely child sexual abuse going on here, though it’s implied and not explicit.

With some help from a friendly park ranger, Naomi goes deep into the snowy mountains to search for Madison. But Mr. B catches a glimpse of her, and is willing to kill to keep his secrets.

This is a beautifully written but often disturbing book; it’s not long, yet I read it over the course of three evenings because the subject matter was so dark. There were times when I felt the relationship between Mr. B and Madison was depicted almost too romantically, but Denfeld herself is a survivor of childhood abuse and I trust that she wrote this story in the way she felt it needed to be told. She is, like her central character, a woman of powerful talents.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the WindowThere’s a great Twitter account called CrimeFictionTrope which satirizes trends in mystery publishing. Sample Tweets: “I can’t believe, after that whirlwind weekend courtship, that my husband is not who I thought he was.” “I applied to be a cop. But was disqualified because I’m not divorced with a teenage daughter I adore but rarely see.” “In my new thriller, a sexy heiress with amnesia almost struggles to escape a serial killer with amnesia. The title: THE GIRL WHO AM I.”

The anonymous writer behind CrimeFictionTrope has Tweeted quite a few times about The Woman in the Window, which seems to tick all of the post-Gone Girl suspense thriller boxes: A damaged, unreliable, alcoholic narrator! Rich white people in New York City! A mysterious trauma that you don’t learn the details of until 3/4 of the way through the book!

A.J. Finn, the nom de plume of William Morrow vice president Dan Mallory, obviously succeeded in his attempt at writing a highly commercial book, since it’s #1 on the New York Times hardcover list this week. (“There is no doubt worth in the kind of writing that only 12 people will appreciate, but I don’t consider that the best use of my time,” he told The Guardian.) I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop reading so many twisty thrillers, which are the literary equivalent of M&Ms, but I was stuck in bed with a cold and I desperately needed a fun, easy read. Suffice it to say that I finished The Woman in the Window in a single afternoon, but I’ll admit that CrimeFictionTrope lurked in the back of my mind the entire time.

Our Unreliable Narrator is Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has lived like a recluse in her four-story Harlem townhouse (real estate porn alert!) for the past year, due to her PTSD from the event that is fully explained… eventually. She’s on all sorts of psychiatric drugs, but she also drinks Merlot by the gallon. Her hobbies are playing chess online, watching black & white movies, and spying on her neighbors. In a nod to “Rear Window,” she believes she witnesses a murder—but of course no one takes her seriously.

“I shy and shrink from the light, and a woman is stabbed across the park, and no one notices, no one knows. Except me—me, swollen with booze, parted from her family… A freak to the neighbors. A joke to the cops… A shut-in. No hero. No sleuth.”

So much alcohol is consumed in this book that I started feeling a little woozy myself, and I was drinking nothing harder than herbal tea. If you’re looking for the midwinter equivalent of a beach book, or something to keep you occupied on a long flight or a sick day, The Woman in the Window is here for you; the calories are as empty as those in a bottle of wine, but it does go down smooth.

“If I Die Tonight” by Alison Gaylin

If I Die Tonight by Alison GaylinSmall-town gossip has been a popular subject in books for decades now—see Peyton Place for one notorious example—but today, social media means that everyone in town has instant access to word-of-mouth whispers. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, which deals with the death of a teenager and the swirl of rumor and innuendo that follows in the wake of that tragedy, feels very of-the-moment; she makes it clear that it’s not just the kids who are on Facebook. The parents are there, too.

Liam Miller, a high school football star in the Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, NY, died a hero, according to the local grapevine: he was killed while trying to prevent a carjacking. Of course, if a story has a hero, it also needs a villain, and that role is filled by troubled teen Wade Reed. He fits the (admittedly vague) description of the assailant, and other bits of circumstantial evidence ensure that many people in Havenkill are determined to blame him for Liam’s death.

Wade’s mom, Jackie, is struggling to raise him along with his younger brother Connor, despite the fact that the boys’ father is no longer in the picture—her attorney ex-husband pays child support but is otherwise not involved in his sons’ lives, choosing to spend time with his new family, including his younger second wife. Jackie is a real estate agent, a business which requires her to maintain a squeaky-clean reputation locally; the accusations being hurled at Wade endanger her ability to make a living.

If I Die Tonight also features several secondary characters, including a has-been ’80s pop star named Aimee En (the carjack victim) and Havenkill police officer Pearl Maze. I must admit that I rolled my eyes a bit as Gaylin rolled out the details of Pearl’s tragic past, which has caused her to fall into a life of one-night stands with guys she meets on hook-up apps. Jackie just felt like a more realistic, well-rounded character, and her up-and-down relationship with her two adolescent sons felt very true-to-life.

I’d classify this book as a thriller, but it’s not as over-the-top twisty as other books in the genre. The trial-by-social-media aspect of If I Die Tonight seemed scarily plausible, and will no doubt resonate with anyone struggling to parent teens in today’s brave new world.

If I Die Tonight will be published in the U.S. on March 6 (it was released in the U.K. in August of last year). Thanks to Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International for the advance copy.

“The World of Tomorrow” by Brendan Mathews

The World of Tomorrow“The World’s Fair, in that summer of 1939, was a place full of promise,” writes Brendan Mathews in his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. “It promised a world of frozen food and hot jazz, a world that would be better supplied and better organized in power, communications, transport, and amusement. Ribbons of highways would connect skyscraper cities where every citizen had a home in the clouds and a car on the road.”

That passage appears on page 514 of Tomorrow, and the preceding pages don’t really have much to do with the World’s Fair, which drew over 44 million visitors to Queens, N.Y., during its eighteen-month-long run. I had been hoping that this book would provide an exciting and dramatic saga set against the backdrop of the fair; instead, I got a so-so novel which climaxes at the event.

The main focus of the book is on three Irish brothers, one of whom emigrated to New York 10 years ago and two who join him there in June 1939. Martin is a semi-successful musician, married with children, still hoping to get his big break. Francis and Michael set sail from Ireland on the run from the I.R.A. with a bag of stolen loot, which is used to book first-class tickets; once aboard the ocean liner, Francis is no longer a small-time pornographer who busted out of jail by making an escape during his father’s funeral, he’s a Scottish laird named Sir Angus. Michael, a former seminarian rendered deaf and mute in an accident, is now Sir Malcolm, tragically injured while fox-hunting.

Little does Francis know that an encounter with a wealthy mother and daughter aboard the liner will force him to keep up the “Sir Angus” ruse once he disembarks in New York. Meanwhile, Michael is joined by a couple of companions: the ghost of William Butler Yeats, the recently-deceased Irish poet, and a very-much-alive young street photographer named Lilly, who helps Michael after he becomes separated from his brother.

Not surprisingly, stealing money from the I.R.A. manages to get Francis in hot water. Much of the book is devoted to Francis’ pursuit by yet another Irish immigrant; I was never as interested in that story as I was in the subplot about Lilly and Michael. Lilly is a European Jew who is supposed to return to Prague, where her boyfriend awaits, but the gathering storm clouds of World War II cause her to wonder if going home would be a wise move, considering the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

There are a lot of characters in this book, but I never had a problem keeping track of them; I often got the sense that Mathews is more skilled at creating characters than in conjuring up a sense of place, since I often found myself wanting more of a flavor of 1939 New York. This is a wildly ambitious novel, but perhaps he’d be better off narrowing his focus a bit next time around.