Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin

32912154Grace has gone a lot farther to figure out what happened to her missing sister than anyone can imagine. She has trained in self-defense and to master her fears. She has scoured the dark web for information and false identities. She has cooked up lies to cover her tracks. She has done all of this to break a possible serial killer with dementia out of a halfway house to get the truth out of him somehow. Julia Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts is a tense ride through Texas, following a trail that leads who knows where for a story Grace might not want to hear. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this book.

We don’t know much about either Grace or Carl Feldman at the very beginning of Paper Ghosts. In a few short chapters, we learn that Carl has dementia, he was a photographer, and that he might have killed Grace’s sister. We also learn that Grace is going to bust him out and take him on a trip to the sites where he took pictures and young women disappeared. Somehow it’s all going to work, in Grace’s head. It has to. She refuses to think that it won’t work. Carl, of course, is not talking about his past no matter how much she prods or tries to jog his memory. Instead, he makes demands for fast food; stops to pan for gold; and to pick up stray, wounded animals. He is not the kind of serial killer Grace expected, especially when he starts to save her life from mysterious pursuers.

The question of what Carl has and hasn’t done kept Grace (and me) guessing about what really happened to her sister and three other young women. Carl was on trial for one kidnapping and murder, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. There’s circumstantial evidence that puts him in the right time and place. There’s his cunning intelligence and charm that can be predatory or flattering by turns. He seems like he ought to be a serial killer. And yet, there’s a delicious ambiguity that runs through the entire book that is only finally resolved at the very end.

I wasn’t sure about Paper Ghosts when I first started it. There were a lot of short paragraphs to get the story moving that made me worry that there might be a lack of depth—characterization and backstory sacrificed for the sake of a fast plot. But Heaberlin is very skilled at embedding information in such a way that you learn more about what’s happening and why without loading readers down with exposition. She’s also great at building up an atmosphere and rich setting that made me feel like I was in the car with Grace and Carl, worried every minute for Grace’s safety and wondering what Carl would do next. This book is a fantastic thriller. It was so good that I want to go and read the rest of Heaberlin’s books.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

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