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Book Review

The Forgotten Girls (2017)

The sixth Stevens and Windermere thriller isn’t the series’ worst, but it’s still far from the best.

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Last year I called Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall the worst of his Stevens and Windermere series, and I meant it. What depressed me most about making such an obvious declaration was how hopeful I’d been at the time, having actually enjoyed the series’ previous entry, The Stolen Ones, and how optimistic I was that the young fiction writer had finally found his voice.

The Forgotten Girls, number six in the series if you’re still counting, is marginally better than last year’s disappointment, though not by much. In many ways it’s a paradox; a thriller wrapped in exploitation stuck inside sausage-factory fiction. It simultaneously showcases the laziest and most amateurish depiction of how an ‘investigation’ works, yet contains some of Laukkanen’s very best writing to date. I suppose this pushes the series forward, so what’s a plus. I guess.

The setup is intriguing enough; a partially decomposed body of a young woman is discovered in Idaho by railroad maintenance workers, obscured by – and preserved by – snow. An autopsy concludes she’d actually died of strangulation, which made this a homicide. Things get even more complicated when a photo of the dead woman’s corpse shows up on the smartphone of Mark Higgins, a tractor salesman who claims never to have been south of Kansas or west of North Dakota, and has no idea how the gruesome photo ended up on his phone.

You don’t ever surf trains on the High Line. Not alone.” This was the warning every rail-rider hears before setting out on impossibly reckless adventures hopping across various trains and living on the edge. Naturally, there’s a mysterious “ghost rider” lurking in the shadows, a bogeyman preying on young women foolish enough to ride alone. This would be Leland Hurley; the very epitome of toxic masculinity and misogyny, at least in caricature. He’s also got a convenient ex-military background that will make tracking him down in later chapters more unnecessarily exhausting than it should be, padding both plot and the book’s page count.

Hurley’s got a thing against women living on the edge, a group that includes drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless, and runaways. Also, an unusual number of Native women, for what it’s worth. These are wayward women, Hurley offers, “for whom an early death wasn’t an if question, but a when.” In other words – all forgotten girls.

He also has “a rap sheet a mile long. Sexual assault and attempted rape charges from here to Tacoma, dating back to the mid-nineties“, yet none of this red-flagged Hurley for local law enforcement to follow-up when investigating a surprising number of murders and disappearances.

From here we’re introduced to Mila Scott, a plucky rail-hopper who was friends with Ash, and now seeks revenge against the man who killed her friend by tracking him down. Admittedly, these sections when Laukkanen describes Mila’s hunt of the killer, and how she manages her way through the intricate rail-hopping system, are among the best writing he’s ever put to paper. There’s a sense of real urgency that approaches voyeurism in watching our heroine actually sleuth her way from location to location, however misguided, to enact revenge for her dead friend. If only the rest of the book weren’t saddled with the dead weight of being attached to a “Stevens and Windermere” adventure we might’ve had something special.

Still, so much else of the ‘adventure’ reads like Laukkanen is simply inputting locations and destinations into Google Maps and relaying the results. Descriptions have that clinical sterility of places that have never been visited personally, which might’ve worked in something fantastical like Lord of the Rings, but consider how much of the actual ‘detective’ work by this series’ marquee stars is just zipping across the country, often on whims and with as little information as possible. You’d almost think you were reading a travelogue instead of a murder-mystery thriller.

Sometimes this works; see Michael Connelly’s masterful descriptions of LA in his Bosch novels, the series Laukkanen clearly aped much of the spectre of his Agent Stevens from – minus any of the personality. Another thing that continues to bug me about this series is just how much of the bulk of actual mystery is decoded via technology, and basic tech at that. That trend continues in this adventure, especially with descriptions about how the mysterious ‘cloud’ works in helping to track the killer down. Yes, technology is often more confusing than it need be, but Laukkanen is simply too young to be this wrong about the basics.

This wouldn’t be such an issue had he not relied so heavily on lazy descriptions of tech in place of actual detective sleuthing, suggesting such things like IP addresses and geolocation tracking are some wild theoretical tools of futuristic police work. Instead, the plot meanders by as we’re shuffled from one lazy convenient deus ex machina after another, with our heroes never actually doing much except getting lucky time and time again.

The joy of a good fiction thriller, even a mediocre one, lay in watching the mystery play out and how the various parts snap together with a satisfying CLICK!. Without that intrigue or whir of deduction there’s no satisfaction; it’s just cheating. My biggest beef with the Stevens and Windermere series is how often Laukkanen omits basic concepts in criminology that only serve to drag down what might’ve been – at the very least – mildly entertaining thrillers into exercises in coincidence and circumstance.

As protagonists, Agents Stevens and Windermere continue to be non-entities in their own series, a dull collection of traits and generalities masquerading as character development. I’m at a complete loss to describe exactly what they actually add to the plot or circumstances, or what skills or experience either bring to the table. Once again, one-half of the team, Minnesota State Investigator Kirk Stevens, is completely shortchanged in both character development and identify in favor of his younger, and more diverse, counterpart, Agent Carla Windermere. Given her bouts of emotionality and delusions of grandeur, I’m not convinced she’d ever pass the FBI psychological assessment, let alone become a top agent traipsing across the country on little more than whims and hunches.

To be fair, some may find this character deficit a bonus, especially since so much of the world of sausage-factory fiction relies on the genre’s disposable effervescence. It’s telling that the writing works best when chapters are little more than single pages, quickly filling in necessary points at a brisk clip before swapping out one perspective for the next. In a way this substance-free style is perfect for those undemanding types who find slogging through more complex work a chore. Not to sound elitist, but take a gander at the average person “reviewing” these books online, or this series, in general. It’s fast-food for the soul, with the same nutritional benefits, for better or worse.

Laukkanen claims his story is loosely based on the real-life case of Robert Pickton, aka The Pig Farmer Killer (among others), who murdered as many as 49 women in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Canada. Other than some vague similarities, Laukkanen’s fictional killer has little to do with the Pickton, and it’s clear the author is stretching both reality (and our credulity) in generating unrelated sympathy in how the humanity of his fictional victims is maligned by comparing them with real-life victims. He even dedicates the book to the memory of “the missing and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. You are not forgotten.” I’m puzzled how dedicating a poorly written, exploitive work of fiction to their memory serves up justice.

It also doesn’t help the book’s finale is, inexplicably, both action-packed and yet still boring, though it’s nice to see Laukkanen give his penchant for a sudden eruption of excessive violence a rest. Again, progress is progress.

If one were to ignore the obvious exploitation of the source material, meandering plot, laughable detective work, and utter black holes of personality headlining the series readers may be able to enjoy The Forgotten Girls. Six books into the Stevens and Windermere series, I’m unsure if the advice – or feedback – being offered to Owen Laukkanen is in his best interest as a writer, either critically or structurally. In spite of what you’ve read in this review, he’s definitely got the chops to produce better and more entertaining fiction than what’s being served here.