A Great Book Recommendation

The Lost GIrlsThis recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...  

As a way of remembering the late and much-missed Maxine Clarke, and of building a resource of fine crime fiction novels, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan had a terrific idea. Each month, different crime fiction bloggers could contribute a post about a book they would recommend to Maxine.  This is my contribution.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls 

As The Lost Girls begins, forty-four-year-old New South Wales antique shop owner Jane Tait gets some disturbing news from her daughter, Jess. Documentary filmmaker Erin Fury is working on a new project about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. According to Jess, Fury wants to interview the Tait family about the 1978 murder of Jane’s cousin, Angela Buchanan.

For Jane, her brother Michael ‘Mick,’ and her parents. Doug and Barbara Griffin, Angela’s death was a tragedy they’ve all tried to put behind them, although it’s had a profound impact on all of their lives. Still, Jane agrees to be interviewed, and we learn about the murder.

In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela spent the summer with the Griffin family. During her visit, she made friends with Mick and several of his friends, and the group spent quite a lot of time together, mostly playing pinball and hanging out, as teenagers do. One day, Angela disappeared. Her body was later discovered, strangled, with a scarf wrapped over her head. At first, the police concentrated their attention on the members of the Griffin family; in fact, they actively suspected Mick for a time.

Everything changed, though, when another girl was found dead a few months later. This time, the victim was sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. She, too, was found with a scarf around her. Soon, the police liked the two killings, and the press dubbed the murderer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ Nothing much came of the investigation, though, and it’s gone cold.

With Erin Fury bringing it all up again, Jane and her family members revisit the murder. Bit by bit, we learn what really happened to Angela, what led to it, and what happened to Kelly McIvor. In the end, we discover that these murders aren’t what they seem on the surface.

There are several reasons I think Maxine would have enjoyed this book. One of them is the layers of character in the novel. Maxine liked books with character depth and complex relationships, and that’s certainly the sort of book this is. As the story goes on, we see how multidimensional these characters really are. Some are not what they seem; all are more than you might think at first. And throughout the novel, we get an increasingly clear picture of the character of Angela Buchanan. As Fury interviews the members of the family, each provides a different perspective on the victims, and that helps us get to know them better.

Maxine would, I think, also have liked sort of mystery this is. The truth about the deaths is revealed layer by layer, and Maxine would have appreciated the motive. She was never one for motives that lacked credibility, or for killers who just killed for pleasure. And she had her fill or psychotic serial killers. This isn’t that sort of novel at all. The motive here is, if you will, a much more human one. And Maxine liked novels where issues were brought to the human level.

Another element of this novel that Maxine would likely have appreciated is that James shows us, through the experience of one family, the impact of grief and loss on more or less ordinary people. Maxine disliked melodrama, preferring instead the stories of real people facing the circumstances of the plot. That’s the sort of novel this is. As the story is told, we see that Angela’s loss has devastated the family members, each in a different way. And none of them really talk about it or face it. The interviews and forthcoming documentary make avoiding the topic impossible, and James shows what that’s like for them.

The story has an authentic New South Wales setting, and Maxine would have liked that, too, I think. She appreciated books with a solid sense of place. The same thing might be said of the time in which the book is set. Part of the novel takes place in the here and now, as the (now older) characters are interviewed, and as we see what happens to them as a result of facing Angela’s murder. The other part of the novel is set in 1977 and 1978 (with one short bit set in 1982), and James places the reader there distinctly. Clothes, speech patterns, and so on all reflect those two different times, and the place.

The focus of this novel is much more on psychological suspense than it is on the actual murders, and Maxine would have liked that, I think. Violence is almost inevitable in a crime novel, and Maxine didn’t flinch at it. But at the same time, she appreciated books where the violence doesn’t take over the plot. This book is like that. There is violence, but it’s really its impact on the characters, more than the violence itself, that is central to the story.

The story is told in mostly the present tense, with different points of view presented in different interviews and chapters. Present tense wasn’t Maxine’s first choice, but I think she’d give this one a pass for that.

The Lost Girls tells the story of the loss of a young girl, and impact both her life and her death have had on everyone around her. It takes place in a distinctly Australian setting, and shows what life was like both when the murder happened, and in the present day. I think Maxine would have liked it very much. I only wish she were here to read it.