Gone Girls

  • by Sandra Parshall
  • November 12, 2013

Three recent crime novels with different takes on the genre’s ur victim: the young woman.

Gone Girls

When Tess Gerritsen was still writing medical thrillers, she asked a librarian what kind of crime novels would appeal most to women, who buy and read more fiction than men do.Books with female victims,the librarian replied. Women readers want to personally identify with the victims. That advice is borne out by marketing studies, surveys, and sales numbers.

According to the FBI, only 20 percent of all murder victims in the United States are female, but in serial-killer cases, which have a strong sexual component, 70 percent of victims are girls or women. In fiction about crazed killers, the preferred object of abduction, rape, torture, and murder has long been a young, pretty woman or teenage girl. Many of these books are written by women, and the audience for them is primarily female.

In recent years, several real-life cases about abducted girls who escaped or were rescued have given similar fictional stories a special appeal. Three recent novels approach the topic from different angles, providing reading experiences that are only superficially alike.

Alex, a French bestseller that won the Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award,is a revenge tale whose central character has been compared to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. The brutal, sensational violence in Alex is certainly a match for Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but key differences between the two characters ultimately make Alex a far less sympathetic protagonist than Salander and more of a plot device than a fully developed character.

The book begins deceptively, with Alex—a pretty girl absorbed in having fun—snatched off the street by a man who appears to be a lunatic with no motive grounded in reality. Stripped naked, locked in a cage suspended from the ceiling in an abandoned warehouse, she is fed dog kibble that attracts a ravenous pack of rats willing to fight her for the food. When Alex escapes and eludes police by assuming a false identity, the plot takes an even more horrific turn, rendering everything up to that point mere prologue to the real story.

The Paris detective on the case, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven (male, despite the first name), is laden with much of the standard emotional baggage of crime-novel cops. He is irascible, contemptuous of authority, difficult to work with under the best of circumstances. His wife was murdered by a kidnapper. His superior doubts Verhoeven’s ability to handle the case, but gives him the assignment anyway because he is a brilliant investigator.

This sets up the professional conflicts familiar to readers of procedurals: Verhoeven’s decisions are questioned every step of the way, stoking the detective’s anger and exacerbating the friction. In addition, Verhoeven is a near-dwarf, standing less than five feet tall, and has no patience with everyone’s predictable reaction to a policeman of such unusual stature. (The reader is left to wonder how someone who clearly doesn’t meet the physical standards of any modern big-city police force was accepted in the first place.)

With no suspects or leads, but determined to find Alex, Verhoeven delves into her personal life and soon discovers she isn’t what she seems to be. The police work is competent, but Verhoeven (set to reappear in two more installments of what will be a trilogy) never demonstrates the superb insight that his reputation leads the reader to expect. His unpleasant personality makes him more of a curiosity than a compelling crusader for justice.

The book also suffers from an odd lack of atmosphere. Although set in the legendary and beautiful Paris, it offers little sense of place. The story has enough twists, though, to keep lovers of dark suspense turning the pages. More jaundiced readers may see the conclusion coming, but others will find it a shocking surprise. Whether they anticipate it or not, fans of noir should find the ending satisfying.

True-crime writer Carla Norton’s first novel, The Edge of Normal, blends suspense with a sharp psychological study of a young woman who is attempting to rebuild her life after several years as the captive of a sexual sadist. This type of crime isn’t as common as the intense media focus on Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, and the four young women recently freed in Cleveland would suggest, but it arouses a deep horror and insatiable public curiosity for details. What was life as a captive like? How did the victims survive? Why didn’t they find a way to escape? The seeming ease with which the rescued women returned to their normal lives is reassuring but almost certainly misleading.

Unlike Alex in Lemaitre’s novel, Norton’s Reeve LeClaire was an ordinary child when she was abducted. From the age of 12, Reeve was subjected to torture and daily rape for almost four years before a freak accident freed her and led to her kidnapper’s arrest. Now 22, she lives on “the edge of normal” and tries to fit into the ordinary world while she continues to see a psychiatrist and struggles with devastating emotional damage.

She has changed her name to hide from the ever-intrusive press, and she sees her waitressing job in a San Francisco sushi restaurant as a lifeline to the normal world beyond her fear-driven routines and tormenting memories. Then, sensationalized news stories about a girl rescued from a captivity similar to her own intrude on Reeve’s carefully ordered existence, and she begins to lose her grip on a fragile recovery.

She finds stability in the least likely way, by reluctantly agreeing to her psychiatrist’s request that she try to help the latest victim, Tilly Cavenaugh. The girl can’t cope with the turmoil of returning home while the press swarms and prosecutors demand her help in convicting her abductor. Reeve forms an immediate emotional connection with Tilly.

But beyond the distress she expects to see, Reeve senses something else: the terrified girl hasn’t revealed everything about her captivity and her captor, and although she’s afraid to tell the police, she needs to confide in someone. Slowly Reeve coaxes the whole story from her—while an anonymous predator keeps a close watch on the two young women, ready to stop Reeve before she can expose the truth.

Norton reported on a case like Reeve’s in The Perfect Victim, which became a nonfiction bestseller and is assigned reading for trainees in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. In her novel, she writes with authority about the agonizing aftermath of captivity and sexual torture, and both Reeve’s and Tilly’s voices ring true. The villain’s point of view is less successful. Although he is a frightening predator, he seems too much of a super menace, with extraordinary skills in too many areas, to be totally convincing.

The book’s climax falls back on a standard thriller situation that lacks the originality of the rest of the story and also requires Reeve to do something out of character for a woman so safety-obsessed and hyper-wary. Yet, on the whole, The Edge of Normal is a challenging and compelling look at the pain and fear that live on after the miracle of escape.

Another accomplished debut novel, Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly, is a story of “domestic suspense” that focuses not on the victim, but on the reverberations of her disappearance within a small community. When 13-year-old Lucinda Riverty vanishes, residents of her English Lake District village heap blame on Lisa Kallisto, who failed to notice that the girl hadn’t shown up for a sleepover with her own daughter.

Kallisto is the kind of woman everyone knows: frantically busy, juggling duties as a wife, a mother to three children, and director of a local animal shelter. Her to-do list is always too long, and she never reaches the end of it. Her work is emotionally draining, her children are demanding, her house is a wreck, money is always in short supply, and she’s constantly exhausted. When she realizes her lack of vigilance has delayed the reporting of Lucinda’s disappearance by a crucial 24 hours, she is torn apart by guilt. Even her supportive husband blames her. Lucinda’s aunt is ready to lynch her.

Yet Lucinda’s mother, Kate Riverty, offers forgiveness and comfort, demonstrating once more than she is the perfect friend, the perfect human being who always leaves Lisa feeling inadequate. Lisa and her husband are at the lower end of the social scale in the village, and the Rivertys are wealthy, yet Kate has befriended Lisa and included the Kallistos in parties and other events. Now, beyond the horror of endangering a child, Lisa feels she has betrayed her friend.

Although the police investigation proceeds under the competent leadership of Detective Constable Joanne Aspinall, Lisa feels driven to search for Lucinda on her own and somehow put right the disaster she helped bring about. An odd incident involving an old dog at the animal shelter brings her closer to a sexual predator than she realizes, but the twisted secret behind Lucinda’s disappearance lies hidden behind the facades of ordinary lives.

Both Lisa Kallisto and Joanne Aspinall are sympathetic characters whose lives will feel familiar to many women. Through these refreshingly ordinary women, Paula Daly tells an absorbing story of guilt, love, and the complex dynamics of marriage and friendship. Just What Kind of Mother Are You? also presents a sharp picture of small-town class divisions in a part of England seldom used as a setting for crime fiction. 

Each of these novels will probably appeal to different readers, but they all prove the enduring appeal of one of crime fiction’s most prevalent character types, the young female who has wandered, stumbled, or willingly walked into victimhood.

Parshall is the author of the Rachel Goddard suspense novels. Her latest title
Through, and her next book, Poisoned
Ground, will be published in March 2014.
She lives in Northern Virginia. 

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