The Silent Girls by Erik Rickstad

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Kindle Edition, 416 pages

Published: November 25, 2015 by Witness Impulse

Setting: Vermont

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Seventeen years ago Frank Rath walked away from his misspent youth — and a promising career as a police detective — to devote himself to being a single dad. As a private detective and consultant to the town’s minuscule police department, he’s drawn into a case involving a missing girl. Mandy Wilks is sixteen years old and stunningly beautiful. She has been emancipated, liberating herself from her tangled mess of a family. When she goes missing, her car abandoned at the side of the road on a frigid October night, Rath — along with detectives Harland Grout and Sonja Test — fears it won’t end well.

Throughout the first half, I was enthralled by this novel. After a fabulously f**ked up first chapter, reminiscent of a horror movie, I met the protagonist. Rath — Rickstad’s incarnation of the haunted, hard-drinking detective we all know so well — is well-developed, flawed, and interesting with a narrative voice I thoroughly enjoyed. The author’s writing style is a perfect fit for me: patient, literary, and gorgeous, with careful attention to descriptive detail, mood, and character development.

Set in a beautiful, brutal New England autumn, about ten miles from the Canadian border, this novel is wonderfully atmospheric, and the setting becomes an engrossing character in its own right. This blends seamlessly with the geological metaphors, which are used in an interesting way.

And while this tale is a bit too dark, even for my tastes — including a horrific description of a way-beyond-awful act of animal cruelty — hey, I willingly jumped down this rabbit hole.

However, as the story gradually closed in on its resolution, my enthusiasm plummeted. All these literary qualities — and excellent pacing — were built on the foundation of a premise I found wholly implausible, with an important clue which I found over-the-top ridiculous.

If you want quick-and-dirty details, spoilers be damned, skip to the spoiler section at the end.

To be fair, many mysteries and thrillers have premises that require suspension of disbelief. In this well-traveled genre, it’s difficult for an author to show readers something new. However, for me, implausible plot points, along with the deteriorating quality of Rath’s character, predominated in the second half of the book.

The characterization of minor players also troubled me. First, part of the story relied on a group of people you’d never expect to meet, in real life, outside of a church picnic at Westboro Baptist. Secondly, suspects were described as grotesquely unattractive — they almost seemed like caricatures. Since this was filtered through Rath’s perceptions, perhaps it was intended to offer insight into his view of the world? Whatever it was, it felt very odd.

Despite my less than stellar review of this novel, the author captured my interest with his writing style and some of his characters, and I will probably revisit his work at some point. This is his second novel — it’s likely that he has a long and fruitful career ahead, and he will probably continue to get better. Furthermore, judging from the number of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, many mystery aficionados loved this book. If you’re skipping my spoilers, and if edgy rural noir appeals to you, this might be worth a look. If you read it, please stop by and let me know what you think.

I was telling my son last night that I’m beginning to wonder if my frustration with the way mystery tropes are handled can be blamed on authors, or if I’ve just read too many mysteries. Maybe I should — dare I say it — take a break from this genre?

Have you read anything by this author? What did you think? And if I don’t take a break from this genre, what mystery series would you suggest that I delve into? Hit me with your best recommendations. 🙂

Spoiler Section–Proceed at Your Own Risk:

The plot hinges on anti-abortion fanatics, including a psychopath who kidnaps young women planning to have abortions, forces them to continue their pregnancies until the fetuses are viable, surgically removes the babies, and makes them available for adoption. Then the women are murdered. Apparently, these pregnant girls are chosen, in part, for their strong genetic traits, but this is never fully explained. To top it off, the killer carves some sort of image into their bodies — it seems to be a demented self-portrait. My WTF-o-meter exploded.

The protagonist, who has hitherto seemed to be an astute detective, proceeds to solve the mystery in the clumsiest manner possible. To be fair, he is afraid for the safety of a loved one, which has impaired his judgment. Nevertheless, it destroyed his credibility in my eyes. First, he awkwardly involves his own seventeen-year-old daughter in the investigation. Then there is the climactic encounter with the prime suspect. The entire passage in which Rath confronts the primary villain was like that scene in a horror film when you’re forced to watch an oblivious, scantily-clad young beauty, inexplicably wearing stripper shoes, clamber down into the basement. No … no … stop! How can you be so stupid! Are you kidding me?

In a bone-headed move we see all too often in detective novels, Rath traipses to the killer’s house — in a brutal snowstorm, no less — without calling for any form of back up. After vacillating over whether his quarry is truly a suspect, and falling for the suspect’s transparent lie: “I’ve called state police,” he leaves. Then he changes his mind, turns around, and sneaks in the back. Fortunately, our intrepid hero is saved by another all-too-familiar mystery trope. Instead of going ahead and killing him, the remorseless murderer is overcome by the urge to chat. He reveals his motive and gives us a peek into his tortured childhood. (It just so happens that he has serious Mommy issues. Huh, imagine that.)

Oh, Rath. Dude, you were a homicide detective. You’ve looked death in the eye. If this is how you roll, how are you still alive?

And don’t get me started on the scene in which Rath hits a girl, giving her a bloody lip, and kicks her cat. No. Just… no.

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4 thoughts on “The Silent Girls by Erik Rickstad

  1. Dang, I read your spoilers because I decided from your C grade and the first couple of paragraphs of your review that I wasn’t going to pick it up, though I had been tempted by seeing it on Goodreads. Sounds like it could have been an awesome story if the author had handled the second half better. And I’m not able to handle much graphic, sadistic violence towards women, children, the mentally challenged and animals anymore so I don’t think I could have read this anyway. Too bad he didn’t develop the plot in a different fashion; it started off sounding like a really cool story 😦
    And yes, I read way too many suspense mysteries and start to get bored with ones that resort to common tropes. I’m getting pretty good at deciphering who’s doing what, why and how things will end.

    Thanks for fair warning– excellent review!

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  2. This sounds way too dark for my liking, though the New England setting sounds like it’s perfect for the somber mood. Btw, thanks for retweeting my PPZ review, I really enjoyed that one as you can see in my review 😉

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  3. I do like dark and disturbing and can even handle violence. I did not read your spoilers, and I will admit that the passage you quoted impressed me with its descriptive vivacity. I’m sorry you had such issues with it. Better luck next time!

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