Winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition, Joanna Schaffhausen’s accomplished debut The Vanishing Season will grip readers from the opening page to the stunning conclusion.
How often does someone escape a serial killer … not only escape but then relive the experience? The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen brings readers into this very scenario through the eyes of Officer Ellery Hathaway. When Hathaway’s previous life collides with the present, she is forced to face the event that almost ruined her life—and the reality that someone is now trying to take that life from her again.
What drew me to this story was the way the book paralleled the initial kidnapping of Hathaway with the current investigation into a not-so-copycat killer. While much of the book is centered on the serial killer, Francis Coben, you are never outright presented with the facts of what exactly was done to Hathaway and how it changed her. We are aware that she was kidnapped, tortured, and survived—but the reality of what Coben did to Hathaway is always kept vague and mysterious, leaving the reader open to interpret.
Ellie’s own hand fluttered to her throat. With her thumb, she could just feel the scar by her clavicle. Coben always left his victim’s hands uninjured, but he had no compunction about slicing up the rest of the body, just for fun. By the time he got to her, he’d had lots of practice, so he knew where he could cut, how much and how deep, to keep her alive as long as he wanted. A thousand times she had prayed for death to release her, but she’d kept opening her eyes and finding herself awake again.
In this instance, my interpretation of what was done to Hathaway could be completely unlike yours. The physical ties to the past are also a constant reminder of what the current killer is capable of—if he is, in fact, aiming to mimic Coben. This also lends to the suspense of the novel, leaving the reader continually wondering how far Coben 2.0 will go to recreate the death that Hathaway once escaped.
The true impact to Hathaway’s mental health is something that is also slowly unveiled through her present-day hunt for a killer. She often references how she is guarded, keeps to herself, and doesn’t let people get close to her; however, this is never necessarily concerning. It is only when Schaffhausen challenges Hathaway’s routine that we are able to glimpse the turmoil Coben still causes in her everyday life. An example of this is when the investigation is brought into her own home:
“What the hell is this?” he asked, pointing at her closet and the nails that held it shut.
“It’s a closet,” she said, matter-of-fact, like it was just any other part of her home. There were two others exactly like it that she hoped he would never see.
“It’s full of nails.”
“There’s nothing in there,” she said. “The house is clear.”
“Ellie. Why’s your closet nailed shut like this?”
She felt the balance of their relationship shifting in his favor again as they stood there in front of the evidence of her insanity.
This instance represents how her experience as a child continues to haunt her. This also helped to develop a character that you could care about; although presenting a tough exterior throughout the novel, it was moments like this that kept Hathaway human and someone to sympathize with. Additionally, as a personal fan of characters with fractured psyches, the development of this protagonist was a home run.
The Vanishing Season is an altogether suspenseful and intricate hunt for a killer and peace of mind. Schaffhausen successfully keeps the reader guessing until the final pages and ends on a note that both provides closure and leaves room for the characters to meet again in another novel, on another case.
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Michelle Carpenter is a crime fiction enthusiast working in the world of NYC advertising.