Reviewed by Ian Lipke
“Let ‘em drool!” A short sharp rejoinder from a brittle character who plays a large part in Charlie Donlea’s The Girl Who Was Taken. Nicole Cutty, amoral, tough and brash has no concern about nude breasts when young men hover. When she and other high school senior girls disappear from the small town of Emerson Bay, fears for their safety shatter the community, but when one of them escapes her abductor and writes a book about her ordeal, fear and excitement reach fever pitch. Painstaking work by Nicole’s older sister, a forensic pathologist, and Megan McDonald, the girl who got away, slowly unmask the kidnapper and murderer.
Charlie Donlea’s name is not yet on everybody’s lips but it may well be after the publication of this gem of a book. He lives with his wife and two young children in Chicago but enjoys regular fishing excursions with his father into remote parts of Canada. It is this wild landscape that he draws upon to form the setting of Emerson Bay. This is a book as much about forensic medicine as it is about tracking a killer. There is evidence of the huge amount of research that leads to the painstaking detail revealed in the book.
The idea to have a kidnapped girl escape from her abductor and then write a book about her ordeal is inspired. It opens more and more avenues for the author to explore. The impact on the girl herself, the reactions of her family to notoriety, the fact that another girl was still missing, and the alternative career path of the older sister who is now faced with the knowledge that one girl was able to escape but her own sister was not – all provide the author with the freedom to direct the story in so many different ways. So, in terms of planning, full marks.
Then there is the development of the plot. The story is believable and it is well paced. It releases such information as one would expect a scientist like Livia Cutty to unearth, piece by piece. It is inevitable that Livia Cutty would want to meet the girl who escaped, and although she detests the publicity Megan McDonald is deriving from the sale of her book, the author allows that meeting to take place. Since Megan McDonald’s father is a policeman it is again necessary for him to be fully briefed on the information that Livia and his daughter, Megan, have found out. It is also sound thinking that Megan would be traumatised and require counselling but whose mind would eventually supply piecemeal the information both Megan and Livia need to lay a criminal by his heels.
The setting is well researched and authentic and the people of the district are positioned to reflect life in a small rural town in the USA. Some are well off and others dirt poor. None stand out as not belonging in such an environment.
The really strong component in this story are the characters populating it. From the first paragraph we meet Nicole Cutty in a situation as dire as any could be, told in an episode as dramatic as any reader would want. The situation switches to Megan McDonald in an environment as safe as anywhere could be telling a story as dark as anyone would want to hear. Megan’s disenchantment with the fascination of the public with the morbid details of her abduction and escape hits all the right notes. We meet Livia Cutty and gain an insight into her life under the scrutiny of the dry sarcasm of her driven supervisor Dr Colt. “We provide the facts, Dr Cutty. The detectives sort them out. ‘Or something’ is not part of our survey or our vocabulary. Get his clothing to ballistics for analysis.” We learn more about her when she enters a gym and trains in kickboxing. She drives herself to purge the pressures of the day from her system.
Casey Delavan’s mother is representative of the urban poor that populate this novel. When Livia interviews her “Covering the cushions to her left was [sic!] food and beverages. Cartons of takeout and plastic bottles of Coke, the current one wedged between the cushions. A bottle of vodka stood in the corner of the couch and a white Styrofoam coffee cup, the rim bitten and marred, rested on the table” (73). As much attention is paid to the least of the characters as to the most prominent.
The writer is not above playing with his readers. When it is revealed that ketamine was more often used with animals than human beings, the writer quietly mentions that Dr Colt’s wife has a veterinary practice. This is fair enough. However, the reader would be forgiven for believing that the following passage was written to mislead, clever though it is:
But there was someone else now. Someone he’d allowed himself to think about…She was new. She had different tastes and different interests and she was unique in her ways…Perhaps he’d stop making bad decisions. She’d come along at just the right time.
He parked his car outside cabin forty-eight. It was on the corner of the riverbank, set back from the water and more secluded than the others. It was dark. Only every third or fourth lamppost was lit. He preferred it dark and quiet. Standing from his car, he removed his duffel bag from the backseat along with a container of food and supplies (247).
In a number of interviews Donlea has claimed that he would never intentionally mislead the reader but he comes uncomfortably close in this passage.
The Girl Who Was Taken is a very well written book that does not slacken the tension at any time. It is suspenseful and a riveting read. It comes with a high recommendation from this reviewer.
By Charlie Donlea
Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978 0 14378 446 3