The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad builds relentlessly on its spellbinding premise, luring readers into its dark and macabre mystery, right to its shocking end.
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Eric Rickstad has made a name for himself with his critically acclaimed Canaan Crime series of psychological thrillers set in remote northern Vermont. In his newest, The Names of Dead Girls, he revisits characters from those earlier books to deliver a story that draws on the past but is firmly rooted in the present.
As The Names of Dead Girls opens, readers are introduced to college student Rachel Rath. Rachel is the daughter of former detective Frank Rath (Silent Girls), who gave up his badge to pursue justice as a private investigator. What she doesn’t know, but will soon find out, is that Frank—whom she’s ably assisted in his inquiries—is actually her uncle (at least biologically speaking) and that her parents died a horrific death at the hands of murderer and serial rapist Ned Preacher. Preacher, who worked the system to his benefit and is now out of prison, professes to have found God. But Rachel feels his eyes on her, and they burn as if carrying the heat of hellfire:
Rachel Rath’s flesh knew before her mind did that she was being watched.
Her face flashed hot, and the skin on her back prickled, terror trickling down her spine as if her backbone were being traced with the crooked, grimy finger of a letch, one single vertebrae at a time.
This was not the creepy sensation she and girlfriends endured when ogled by middle-aged but decidedly milquetoast men. This was an instinctive caution the body signaled for its survival.
As Rachel is being watched, Frank receives a phone call from Preacher, his taunting laugh and the sound of canaries in the background seemingly indicating a torturous plan for the young woman. Believing the call to have come from Rachel’s off-campus housing, Frank summons help from the Canaan PD and makes the frantic drive to her home only to be met by two lawmen and an empty apartment. Only later does he learn that Rachel was out shopping with her boyfriend, Felix, at a pet store—and that she both felt and observed Preacher’s presence there with her. Convinced that his old foe has commenced plotting Rachel’s demise, Frank begins unofficial surveillance on the ex-con.
Meanwhile, Detective Sonja Test is brought in to investigate the apparent disappearance of Dana Clark, who has failed to materialize at her daughter’s house after making a call from outside the Wayside Country Store, which has closed early due to a turbulent rainstorm. Dana’s daughter informs authorities that her mother mentioned a man appearing behind her before disconnecting the call.
When Frank is looped in on this case, he realizes their missing person was the last victim of the Connecticut River Valley Killer (CRVK) before that unsub went dormant. Frank has long suspected that Preacher and the CRVK may have been one and the same. Can Dana’s disappearance possibly be a coincidence? Or has the assailant returned to finish what he started?
Frank and Test have a good working relationship, though the detective—married with two young children and hoping to be promoted to senior—feels slighted when Frank is given that position by the chief. It’s not one he covets or plans to hold long-term; still, he accepts begrudgingly, knowing that with it comes the legal authority to question and observe Preacher. This is particularly important, given that a(nother) young girl’s body has been discovered dead in the forest (shedding new light on old crimes)—a wet woodland that Rickstad renders as alive and haunting as his flesh-and-blood characters:
The rugged terrain proved arduous hiking.
The rain fell, a din that started in the leaves yet seemed to take residence inside Test’s head as she swam through a fog as thick as forest fire smoke, barely able to tell that the ethereal figure just head of her was the father, his ghost arm slung around his son’s shoulder, as if he were afraid that if he let the boy out of his grasp the fog would claim him. The only evidence to suggest Test was in the deep woods were the trees that slowly crept out of the fog like fuzzy black-and-white photographs failing to fully develop before they faded again as she moved past them toward more trees.
Anyone could be hiding a few feet away in this soup.
As the investigation escalates in accordance with the body count, it becomes apparent that somebody other than Preacher, and perhaps in conjunction with him, is stalking young girls and exacting vengeance. For what purpose remains unknown. Each “good guy” character has unique, well-developed motivations that drive their actions (or inactions), and though there is a common goal at hand, their individual approaches differ markedly. Frank, desperate to protect his own family while seeking justice for the “dead girls,” must work within the bounds of his conscience; Rachel, now aware of her identity and also the brutality her parents’ deaths, is out for revenge; and Sonja Test, torn between ambition and domesticity, is on the cusp of making decisions that will profoundly impact her personal and professional lives. Consequently, the emotional tension rivals the pulse-pounding adrenaline of the hunt.
The Names of Dead Girls is a superlative suspense story that’s as strong in atmosphere and setting as it is in character and plot. Though a relatively new voice in the genre, the author writes with the assurance of a veteran; indeed, in just a few titles, Rickstad has created a style and sensibility that is undeniably his own. While returning readers will have an even greater appreciation for this book’s depth, it satisfies and surprises by virtue of its own myriad merits. The Author’s Note that closes the work is both intimate and nearly as unsettling as the fiction that preceded it, which further proves the point: Eric Rickstad’s is a name to remember.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.