Posted in Netgalley

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker. Translation by Howard Curtis.

I’m revisiting this book and expanding on my original NetGalley review for this blog blast, as I recover from moving house and suffering an infection from a nasty cat bite! So, I’ve refreshed my memory and really thought about this interesting book again. First of all, here’s the blurb:

A twisting new thriller from the author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

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?

For me, this author manages to do something very clever with his novels. He writes thrillers that keep you hooked, while delivering a strangely relaxing read. It’s like the same feeling you get watching a really good TV series; in the days before multi-channels and Netflix, English dramas tended to be short and low budget, whereas American and Scandinavian channels invested money at their dramas, often delivering 22 episodes per season. These longer dramas allow every character to develop and lets the story breathe. If the series is a thriller there can be so many twists and turns over a longer time, red herrings can develop and be dismissed, and the tension of the last few episodes becomes unbearable. That’s what I felt happened with this book, it’s slow and characters change and surprise you. I think readers may have a bit of a marmite reaction to it – those who like their thrillers short and snappy will be frustrated, but those who love to explore character, setting, and a tale that meanders through many twists and turns before revealing the truth, will love it. It’s every shade of grey, rather like life.

The dual timelines of 1994 and 2014 work very well, with the past informing the future for the reader. Both cases are also intriguing and form an interesting contrast. The 1994 shootings are so dramatic, public and involve many victims, whereas the 2014 disappearance has a less public impact. I found myself constantly asking if Stephanie disappeared because of the 1994 case she’s investigating for an article – opening old wounds in a small town that wants to believe it caught it’s killer – or whether something more personal and unrelated was happening. The fact that she turns up just as Captain Jesse Rosenberg is about to retire seems too much of a coincidence though. Jesse is a likeable character, a good, honest cop whose diligence sets him apart. Despite his impending retirement, Stephanie’s disappearance and the knowledge that his findings on the original case were wrong, leave him determined to solve both cases before he leaves. However, Jesse and colleague Derek Scott became small town celebrities for solving the 1994 shootings, and maybe they liked the status and boost to their careers a little too much? It would be very difficult to accept they were wrong, but Jesse seems to do that and appears determined to find the truth of both cases. I also found myself questioning the circumstances of the original case. We know that the original investigation was wrong, but not why it was wrong. The mayor and his family were shot dead, but across the street a jogger called Megan is also shot, in the back of the head. Was this a case of wrong time, wrong place, for Megan? Did she see something that would have revealed the killer? Or should we be turning the whole case on its head? What if Megan was the intended victim all along?

These were just some of my thoughts as I wandered through this slice of small town life gone wrong. I love convoluted plots where I have no clue where I will end up in a few chapters time. All too often in thrillers, the truth is easy to work out early on, but here I had no idea and an array of clues and characters to decipher. This novel was long, but it has to be so the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the amount of information. It didn’t feel daunting though, and the writer’s technique of building tension towards small revelations throughout, certainly piqued my interest and kept me reading. Yes, maybe the novel might have benefitted from cutting a couple of characters or points of view. However, it might have lost that constant feeling of uncertainty needed in a good thriller. This is a slow burner of a novel, packed with possibilities and the odd red herring or two to keep the reader on their toes. In the last few chapters I couldn’t wait to uncover the truth, because the long build-up had intensified the tension. The manner in which the truth is revealed was a surprise, as if by accident rather than spelled out in black and white like a traditional detective novel. I felt this contributed to the ‘realness’ of the story; how many real life killers are arrested for something quite different at first? Life is full of multiple characters, faulty memories, strange cul-de-sacs and a million shades of grey, and that is exactly what the author has represented in this novel.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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