As addictive, cinematic, and binge-worthy a narrative as The Wire and The Killing, Two Girls Down introduces Louisa Luna as a thriller writer of immense talent and verve.
Fair warning: set aside enough time to finish Two Girls Down in one sitting because you won’t be able to stop until it's over. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: two young girls disappear during a quick shopping trip to Target. Their single mother, Jamie Brandt, is heartsick and distraught. Jamie’s aunt, Maggie Shambley, contacts Alice Vega, a famous California bounty hunter, to ask her to locate her missing nieces. In less than 24 hours, Vega arrives in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. She needs a partner, someone who knows the local scene. Max Caplan, “Cap,” is her choice—once a local cop, now a private detective.
Cap is a bit of a philosopher. A private detective has a lot of time to ponder human foibles while surreptitiously monitoring illicit activities. He’s divorced, so he understands the futility of anyone getting “to have it all.” Although, he’d be out of business if folks didn’t try—or so he muses during a nooner stakeout.
Maybe the only way it gets better is to have an hour with the waitress from the diner or the fresh young babysitter in a motel room or your car with the backseat folded into the trunk.
Maybe you’re just an asshole.
Cap had stopped flipping through the possibilities a long time ago. The truth was he didn’t care why they did it; it was just his job to catch them.
Living in a rural “town of fifteen thousand everyone looked familiar,” much to Cap’s dismay. “He hated knowing people.” Tragic incidents are hard to ignore when you know their story.
The former high school football star who od’ed on oxy and Heineken. Keep your small towns, thought Cap. Give me a city where I don’t recognize the corpse.
Vega’s a solitary sort, focused and methodical, as is exemplified by her pursuit of the perfect handstand. Group yoga classes were not for her. “She got sick quickly of the instructor’s monologue, of the incense, of the women and their personalized mats.” Her solution—to buy a book and learn on her own.
Practiced the handstand until she could do it. First against the wall, then in the middle of the room. First for two minutes, then five, then ten. Now fifteen minutes in the middle of the room at four or five in the morning when she woke up.
That methodical persistence is what Alice Vega brings to her profession of fugitive recovery. But even solitary Vega needs backup when she’s tracking missing people. She turns repeatedly to her computer guru, “Bastard,” for deep background. While Bastard searches for security camera feeds and the whereabouts of Jamie Brandt’s deadbeat former husband, Vega pours over the local police blotter. Bingo: a scandal in 2014—after the overdose death (in custody) of a local high school football star, a detective resigned. Max Caplan.
Vega reaches out to Cap and tells him why she needs his help. She’s good with video feeds—finding the girl’s father—and she has the Brandt family’s full cooperation, “but there’s a piece [she] can’t get to.”
“Witness statements,” said Cap.
“Yes. I could get employees from local businesses, but the people in the parking lot, passers-by; there’s no way I could get them all.”
She paused. Cap watched her eyes travel quickly to the corner of the room as she thought.
“I could get them. It would just take time.”
“Which you don’t have,” said Cap.
“Which I don’t have,” said Vega.
Cap turns Vega down but eventually changes his mind. Or perhaps his daughter Nell changes it for him, reminding him of advice he gave her the day he quit his police job: “You said every day we make a million little choices, and we should try to make the right ones as much as we can.” Nell knows, and so does Cap, that joining forces with Vega is the right thing to do.
Kylie and Bailey Brandt may not ever be found, and if they’re not found quickly, Vega knows from bitter experience that they probably won’t be found alive. That is the first question Jamie Brandt asks her.
“When you found them, were they alive, or what?”
Vega looked her right in the eyes and said, “Sixteen alive. One dead. And one alive but”—she tapped her head—“dead.”
Time ticking away like a time-bomb on a fuse—that’s the element that makes Two Girls Down stand apart from more conventional detective stories. That and the bleak, impoverished landscape of a community torn apart by an epidemic of OxyContin and meth. Like I said, you won’t be able to put it down.
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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.
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