The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

A simple tale deliberately made complex. The plot is presented in two parts: the first part is said to have occurred in 1994 with the horrific murders of four people in the seaside town of Orphea. Two young policemen Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott were able to solve the case and catch a murderer. In the second part, set in 2014, a young journalist Stephanie Mailer tells Rosenberg that all those years before, he’d arrested the wrong person. She then disappears without trace. Rosenberg and Scott are left confronting the possibility that, through their actions, they may have been responsible for a miscarriage of justice. They set out to find or confirm the truth.

In the style of the traditional crime novel, the detectives chase down the clues. Each bit appears without reference to any other but, like a giant jigsaw each piece, though discovered individually, contributes to complete a damning picture. The story is a dogged pursuit, stimulated by a little luck. This is a giant of a book that might have become a classic mystery tale if the writing had been equal to the big ideas that stimulated this work. The author details so many conversations and clues, and inserts so many minor events, that these desiderata become clutter.

The prose style can only be described as mediocre. Repeated words and phrases (‘staring up at the ceiling’, ‘staring at the ceiling’ p. 210) and the over-use of adverbs when a more appropriate phrase might have captured the meaning (‘he left the kitchen and walked resolutely’ p.212, ‘he left the room resolutely’ p. 214) leads to an uninteresting prose style. In short bursts a writer of such prose might get away with mediocre writing but, in a monster of almost 600 pages, there is little chance of doing so. Readers cannot help noticing this habit and find themselves anticipating the next example.

In addition to weak prose writing is the lack of development in the characters. Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott are the same individuals in 2014 that they were in 1994. They adopt the same ways of thinking that they displayed twenty years earlier. The introduction of Betsy Kanner was an opportunity missed. A lone woman among a bunch of males – that situation calls for developed humour. I felt this section was dismissed too quickly. Betsy was a burst of fresh air when she arrived but was soon afflicted with the same malaise that infects the other characters.

The story jumps from 1994 to 2014 and back to the earlier year. Stereotyped situations appear with regularity; it’s just a matter of guessing which page will have the next. Most interest is in the mayor. Things look black for the poor man until, sure enough, it was the mayor’s wife who was driving the van (289). And none of us guessed!

At this point I saw no reason to critique any further. Another book might be a better choice.

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer


By Joel Dicker

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978-0-85705-925-3

$32.99; 544 pp


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