THE CHILD FINDER
By Rene Denfeld
273 pp. Harper. $25.99.
Denfeld is a Portland-based journalist and private investigator, and also the adoptive mother of three foster children. All these aspects of her life are mined in âThe Child Finder,â a powerful novel about a search for a missing girl thatâs also a search for identity.
Naomi, a private investigator in the chilly Pacific Northwest, specializes in missing children. And sheâs harboring a secret: She was once a missing child herself. Her latest case involves a high-spirited 5-year-old named Madison Culver, who vanished during a family trip to find a Christmas tree. Three years later, Naomi picks up the trail, taking her deep into the forbidding woods of rural Oregon. Everything â and everyone â is cold and isolated, the snow blanketing the evil just beneath the surface. Itâs âDeliveranceâ encased in ice.
While Denfeldâs novel is indeed loaded with suspense, its resonance comes from its surprising tilt toward storytelling restraint, a rarity in this typically crackling genre. Elegiac, informative and disquieting, it artfully moves between Naomiâs painstaking search, which triggers scattershot memories of her own disappearance, and the survival tactics of plucky Madison, who, in coping with her brutal captivity, has reimagined herself as âthe snow girl,â a character from a fairy tale. Denfeld adroitly divebombs up, down and around her main charactersâ experience of secrets, resilience, fantasy and death, all set in a dark, gloomy forest fit for the Brothers Grimm. The novel gallops to a suitably heart-racing finish as Naomi tries to outrun the clock to save Madison. And, perhaps, herself.
By A. F. Brady
408 pp. Park Row. $26.99.
As a real-life Manhattan psychotherapist, Brady would seem the ideal writer to tell the story of a high-flying doctor at a New York City mental hospital whoâs secretly battling her own personal demons. Alas, her main character, Dr. Samantha James, is so unlikable, so relentlessly awful, that itâs impossible to care about her. A raging alcoholic, Sam spends the first two-thirds of the book vomiting into her wastebasket, getting beaten up by her abusive prig of a boyfriend and seeking comfort via cheap sex with a narcissistic barfly. Her struggle to keep her star-doctor facade intact, presumably meant to arouse our concern and sympathy, yields anything but.
The novel is presented as a psychological chess match pitting Sam against a patient named Richard McHugh, a cipher with a secret agenda. Yet itâs merely a long, dreary slog with a paint-by-numbers supporting cast (the do-goody cheerleader colleague, the clueless boss, the chip-on-his-shoulder guy, the prince of a friend) and spectacularly bad metaphors (âHis voice sounds a little bit like what I would imagine a diesel engine covered in melted butter would sound likeâ). Richard, who has stolen mini-bottles of booze out of Samâs filing cabinet, begins blackmailing her, in the process rooting out the real cause of her misery as he gradually reveals his own left-field identity. Never has there been a more appropriate title: âThe Blindâ has no idea where itâs going.