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 Ã¢Â€ÂœThe Child Finder,Ã¢Â€Â a powerful novel about a search for a missing girl thatÃ¢Â€Â™s also a search for identity.
Naomi, a private investigator in the chilly Pacific Northwest, specializes in missing children. And sheÃ¢Â€Â™s 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 Ã¢Â€Â” and everyone Ã¢Â€Â” is cold and isolated, the snow blanketing the evil just beneath the surface. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s Ã¢Â€ÂœDeliveranceÃ¢Â€Â encased in ice.
While DenfeldÃ¢Â€Â™s 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 NaomiÃ¢Â€Â™s 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 Ã¢Â€Âœthe snow girl,Ã¢Â€Â a character from a fairy tale. Denfeld adroitly divebombs up, down and around her main charactersÃ¢Â€Â™ 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 whoÃ¢Â€Â™s secretly battling her own personal demons. Alas, her main character, Dr. Samantha James, is so unlikable, so relentlessly awful, that itÃ¢Â€Â™s 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 itÃ¢Â€Â™s 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 (Ã¢Â€ÂœHis voice sounds a little bit like what I would imagine a diesel engine covered in melted butter would sound likeÃ¢Â€Â). Richard, who has stolen mini-bottles of booze out of SamÃ¢Â€Â™s 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: Ã¢Â€ÂœThe BlindÃ¢Â€Â has no idea where itÃ¢Â€Â™s going.