Monday, February 20, 2012

The Steel Trap Detective and the Lost Little Girl

When mousy suburbanite Carol Wentz vanishes, no one thinks anything of it. Another unhappy housewife on the lam. Until her wallet appears in the house where six-year-old Iris Neff vanished eleven years ago. And in that wallet, the address and website of Manhattan PI Brenna Spector, missing persons specialist. Brenna couldn’t find Iris Neff a decade ago, so she ventures into a new and surprisingly intricate mystery today.

Alison Gaylin’s and she was introduces an interesting character in Brenna Spector, who, because of childhood trauma, cannot forget anything once it enters her head. Everything she has seen, heard, read, or experienced since she was eleven years old is embossed on her long-term memory. While this has its advantages, she can’t prioritize, can’t shirk pain, and can’t stop crippling waves of full-sensory memory intruding on the present.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it resembles the premise behind the current TV series Unforgettable. Because of mass media lag times, the two were probably in production about the same time. But don’t let that fool you; Gaylin is no mere trend-watcher. She uses hyperthymestic syndrome, a very real illness, to plumb the psychological depths of a character who cannot abandon her personal quest because time doesn’t heal all wounds.

Brenna Spector struggles to endure the day. Because she forgets nothing, everything in the present is a potential trigger for elaborate memories. Some of those memories are extremely painful, and she can find herself trapped in an elaborate tape loop of trauma. This drives a wedge between her and the human race, alienating her from family and keeping her from making friends. She develops strenuous rituals to keep herself in the present.

The current mystery initially offers Brenna the opportunity to evade her weaknesses. The upstate bedroom community of Tarry Ridge has changed so much in the decade since Brenna last visited that she assumes she’ll have no trouble separating past from present. But that proves her greatest limitation. Because the two disappearances are so tightly linked, many clues she needs have been bulldozed by recent big-city development deals.

Brenna partners with Detective Nick Morasco, a professorial cop who has already taken his lumps for how this case has unfolded. Morasco has glimpsed the tawdry network of secrets over the Iris Neff case—and now the Carol Wentz case—but since his neck is already on the chopping block, he can only help Brenna so far. As the case unfolds, though, and both detectives keep their cards close to the vest, we start who wonder who’s helping whom.

Underlying the whole case is the original trauma that caused Brenna’s steel trap memory. When she was eleven, she witnessed her big sister get in a blue car and vanish. She’s blamed herself ever since, and cannot permit herself to forget anything. Strangely, the longer she investigates the Wentz/Neff disappearance, the more parallels start to appear with Brenna’s sister and her twenty-eight-year absence.

In some ways, Alison Gaylin is almost too hip for her own good. She pinches her title from a Talking Heads tune and her premise from the same well as prime time TV writers, and she name-checks movies, teenpop singers, classic TV shows, and more pop culture than I can track without Google. Keeping up with this willfully hip story is no small task.

But Gaylin resists obvious stereotypes: nobody saves the little girl at the climax, and Brenna and Morasco evade the too-easy romance. Her mystery remains so alive and active that readers won’t figure out the answer around page 100. I found the resolution both completely unexpected, and wholly earned. And that’s plenty rare.

Gaylin reminds me of two mysteries I’ve enjoyed in the past. On the one hand, like Alex Kava’s A Perfect Evil, Gaylin presents a female protagonist in a primarily male world, standing up to a villainy so integrated into its community that it almost evades notice. On the other hand, like Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep, Gaylin takes a detective who cannot see the world like ordinary people do, and forces her to explore her own inner depths.

It would be too easy, and false, to say Gaylin has produced deep literature. This is a paperback detective novel, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. But by showcasing an interesting character with a complex, nuanced struggle, Gaylin evades the traps that make culture snobs like me sneer at detective novels. And in so doing, she creates a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.

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