The Disappearances, Emily Bain Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 978-0-544-87936-2, $17.99, 385pp, hc) July 2017.
Initially, Emily Bain Murphy’s The Disappearances reads as straightforward historical fiction. It’s 1942 and teenage Aila is facing the stark reality of life in the wake of her mother’s recent death. To make matters worse, her father is off to the war in the Pacific and she and her younger brother Miles must go live with their mother’s oldest friend in Sterling, CT, where she grew up. Aila knows very little about her mother’s childhood but is resigned to doing her best to fit in. Readers will feel immediate empathy for these children and their predicament, but likely expect little in the way of fantasy from reading the first few pages. Then Aila and Miles arrive in their new home with the Clifton family and, in spite of the pouring rain that greets them, Aila is stunned to notice that Matilda Clifton remains completely dry. Clearly, everything in the seemingly dull town of Sterling is not as it appears.
Thankfully, Bain doesn’t play coy with her readers and the mystery unfolds very quickly. The Cliftons do not bother trying to keep Sterling’s secrets from the newcomers and Aila and Miles are soon clued into the fact that every seven years something significant “disappears” from the people of not only their small town, but three other towns nearby. First it was a sense of smell, then the stars in the sky, their ability to see their own reflections, etc. The disappearances affect not only current residents but even those who have moved away. In fact, they impact everyone except Aila’s mother, who somehow always beats the curse. This distinction made the locals suspicious of Julia Quinn in the past and now that her children have returned home they are, of course, suspicious of them as well.
What grounds The Disappearances is detective work. While the mystery certainly involves something supernatural (how else to explain entire towns losing the stars?), Aila’s approach to getting to the bottom of things (and proving her mother blameless) is right out of Agatha Christie. The biggest clue is a literary one, which makes things very interesting, yet potential red herrings abound, especially when Murphy introduces a second narrative, from another former Sterling resident who seems to be up to no good and has an unexplained attachment to Julia Quinn. When a new, and especially devastating disappearance occurs, the tension is ratcheted through the roof and Aila feels the pressure to get the bottom of things before life goes to hell in a hand basket. Readers will fly through the pages as they follow the clues with their determined protagonist, and the nefarious nature of the “Sterling curse” is fully revealed.
The Disappearances is in many ways good old-fashioned fun that manages to retain a modern sensibility. Because it is set in the 1940s, it is entirely believable that a few small rural towns could keep quiet about something like the disappearances, and the palpable isolation that Aila feels is entirely believable. But the prose is not dated and the mystery itself is timeless. Honestly, it’s nice to see a well-crafted mystery for teens that doesn’t rely on technology (faulty or otherwise) to keep the narrative hopping. Conducting research the old fashioned way, by hunting down passages in books, makes for a rather unique read these days, and the tension and sense of foreboding remain high. Mystery fans are going to love this one; it’s tailor-made for a long winter night.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.