In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of four murders. Two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer. Then, twenty years later and just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. But before she can give any more details, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the possibility that her suspicions might have been proved true. What happened to Stephanie Mailer? What did she know, and what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?
Once again Joël Dicker (The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, The Baltimore Boys) does not stint on the word count in this sprawling, clever and intricately plotted thriller, The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer, which at twice the length of most contemporary thrillers gives much food for thought…
Just dwelling on the length of the book initially, what Dicker so adroitly achieves, is keeping the plot fluid and engrossing as it pivots between two distinct timelines, never confusing the reader as to where they are in time, and which branch of the story is being played out or referenced. Set twenty years apart, and with characters playing roles in each, Dicker embraces this significant period of lapsed time in the book to fill in the history of not only individual protagonists, but to draw the reader into the unveiling of what amounts to a significant miscarriage of justice, and the slow reveal of the actual killer and their motivations for the crime. This proves a real masterclass in thriller plotting, and how to sustain such a feeling of dramatic tension over a not insignificant page count, with each twist and surprising turn in the plot feeling entirely organic and natural, with plenty for the characters and the readers themselves to revisit and puzzle over as the story progresses. As the story takes place among the annual staging of a theatre festival in a small American town, the book is very much structured as a play, with the individual sections referenced as acts, and all the characters can be conceived as players upon a stage. In fact, in reference to the structure of seven parts to the book I was reminded of this Shakespeare quote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
Dicker keeps a tight rein on the number of characters, with each of their personal stories clear and easy to follow as the timeline changes, and in the vein of great dramatic theatre, some of them experience a huge gamut of emotive upheaval and personal loss in this search for both the missing journalist, Stephanie Mailer, and the revisiting of past events. None more so than the main detective duo of Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott, whose personal and professional history really come to the fore, and Rosenberg in particular was a real stand out character for me. As a man intent on being a “righter of wrongs” and a “protector of the weak” the gradual reveal of the huge emotional cost to him personally of the events twenty years prior, and his insistence on, and determination of re-solving the original case, and to track down Mailer, are at the very heart of this book. Ably assisted by Scott, who has his own personal demons to grapple with, and a female deputy Anna Kanner who is an absolute joy throughout, Rosenberg comes to realise that something has gone very wrong in their original investigation, and with a tenacity and guile accrued through the years seeks to right the wrongs of the past and the present. Dicker’s other characters are a kaleidoscope of stoics, eccentrics, ne’er-do wells and fools in differing measures, again circling us back to the theme of theatre and the true characters that lurk behind the face they show to the world, and significantly all playing a important part in the book overall…
Dicker captures perfectly the claustrophobic atmosphere of small town life in Orphea “a small, swanky, oceanside resort,” with this book transcending the location in which it is set, making it recognisable to readers globally who have had experience of living in a suffocating small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business, gossip is rife, local corruption is an accepted given, and when the town opens out annually for the theatre festival, Dicker shows clearly how the dynamics change, bringing an added layer of life and colour to the town, and outsiders are welcomed, and not-so-welcomed, in. This small, outwardly respectable community is imbued with jealousy, obsession, avarice and greed that can only lead to false accusations, murder and kidnap, and as the story plays out, the reader will encounter all of these traits, and more besides, in its inhabitants.
Like Joël Dicker’s previous books, The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer is a beautifully plotted and intelligent thriller, with a varied and fascinating cast of characters that immerses you completely from the outset. As the story circles between past and present, and the true motivations, desires, weaknesses and failings of the central protagonists are carefully and gradually revealed. I became totally consumed by the chicanery, corruption and the dark individuals present in this singularly atmospheric small town, and equally by the law enforcement officers who have their own personal stories of loss and frustration, but who seem to be empowered and driven on by their sense of justice and morality to admit mistakes, and seek to correct the wrongs of the past. With another assured and flowing translation by Howard Curtis, and with time something we all seem to have a little more of at the moment, this is a chunky satisfying thriller that I would heartily recommend.
Joël Dicker was born in Geneva in 1985, where he studied Law. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. It has sold more than 3.6 million copies in 42 countries. The Baltimore Boys, at once a prequel and a sequel, has sold more than 750,000 in France. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is now a major SkyWitness series starring Patrick Dempsey.
(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy)
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