SILENCED GIRLS – (Agent Tori Hunter #1)
The beautiful young woman is perfectly still, curled up in the trunk of the car, her long dark hair hiding her face. Her cotton blouse has ridden up a little, revealing two small dots an inch apart on her back. Just like the others.
Guilt has kept FBI Agent Tori Hunter away from her home in Manchester Bay, Minnesota for twenty years, ever since her twin sister disappeared on the Fourth of July, when the girls should have been together. But when she receives an anonymous newspaper clipping about another missing girl, Genevieve, Tori is dragged back to the past. Just like Tori’s sister, Genevieve vanished without a trace, her empty car abandoned on a lonely lakeside road as Independence Day fireworks lit up the sky overhead.
Returning to Minnesota lake country, Tori finds Genevieve’s distraught parents desperate for answers. How could their beautiful, popular daughter be snatched so near her own home? Under pressure to make an arrest, the police have no time for Tori’s theories. Besides, they already have a suspect for Genevieve’s abductor: a local man seen flirting with her the night she disappeared.
But then the suspect is found dead in his isolated cabin, days before another girl’s body is discovered bound and strangled in the trunk of her car, two strange dots on her back. The bloodstains surrounding her body belong to the one man Tori thought she could trust. Reeling, Tori knows the closer she gets to the truth, the more her own life is at risk. But can she catch this killer before it’s too late for Genevieve?
Roger Stelljes is the acclaimed New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of pulse-pounding murder mystery and suspense novels, including the Agent Tori Hunter and McRyan Mystery series. Roger’s crime thrillers are noted for their fast-paced, yet intricate plots filled with layered and complex characters.
Roger started his first novel in July 2002 while on vacation in Minnesota’s Brainerd Lakes area and has been writing ever since. His debut book, The St. Paul Conspiracy, was nominated in genre fiction for the Minnesota Book Awards along with finalists Brian Freeman and William Kent Krueger. With his follow-up, Deadly Stillwater, where Vince Flynn hailed Roger as a “powerful new thriller voice”, he won the Midwest Independent Book Publishers award for commercial fiction.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Roger still lives there with his family. In addition to his work as an author, Roger is a partner in his law firm. He is also an avid sports enthusiast and enjoys spending time outdoors boating, attending hockey games, and honing his golf game.
“Starting a new series with all new characters is always an adventure. My goal in every book I write is to have the readers be so engrossed in the story, so drawn in, that they cannot put the book down. They must read one more chapter, then another, and then another such that they keep reading late into the night to see what happens next. I love that experience as a reader, and I want my audience’s experience to be the same”
JULY 5th 1999, 4:14a.m.
MANCHESTER BAY, MINNESOTA
“Dispatch, I’m 10-8 leaving the Berglund place up on Little Birch,” Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Gregerson reported, noting his availability for service, having addressed the noise complaint. Once he was around the front of the cabin, he chuckled to himself. The two mid-twenties couples were still going strong with the bonfire blazing. The empty beer cans were plentiful on the ground, and the country rock music – along with their boisterous voices – was just a bit too loud for the cabins tucked in along Little Birch Lake.
Gregerson turned himself around and made his way back along North Little Birch Lake Road, stifling a late-night yawn as he approached and then turned left onto Highway 4, called the H-4 by locals of Shepard County. The highway was quiet with only one lonely set of headlights passing him in the northbound lane in the two miles before he approached County Road 48. He turned right, planning to work his way southwest to Manchester Bay for a short break. He reached for his now lukewarm coffee and took a drink as he eased around a gentle bend. Up ahead on the right shoulder he viewed a white car. Its lights were turned off, the hazard lights not flashing. He slowed and pulled in behind it, a mid-nineties white Grand Am. He couldn’t place his finger on it, but the car looked familiar to him for some reason…”
“Twenty months later, Big Jim Hunter died. After her father’s funeral, Tori Hunter left Manchester bay for the last time and didn’t return. Jessie Hunter was never found”
“She had a new purpose, dedicating her life to preventing families from having to experience what she did. Tori had lost her family, but she was going to do everything she could to prevent it from happening to anyone else”
“In this job there’s nothing better than saving a life. The problem is that the flip side is usually more the case, and there’s nothing worse than having to tell someone their loved one is gone, and it’s doubly worse when you can’t answer the question ‘why’ To me, delivering that message is the toughest part of being on the job. Because without the why, loved ones can’t get closure”
“There is acceptance and there is belief – they’re two different things. I don’t believe it, you know I don’t, but I may have to accept it”
“Does pissing people off come naturally or do you actually try to do it?”
“Politicians,” Tori said bitterly. “They’re such inveterate ass-kissers for money”
“We’ll just have to put everything back together,” Kyle answered, undaunted, already looking ahead to life’s next challenge. “It’ll define us only if we let it”
“She moved far away to try and forget her past. A past that would seep back in when she least expected it and crushed her soul over and over”
Told mostly in the third person, with one or two interjections by the perpetrator, who quite early on reveals himself to be male, which rather set me on edge as I had some strange notion that I would immediately be able to pick him out. However, I need not have worried, as author Roger Stelljes is much too sneaky for that and me solving the crime ahead of Tori and Will was never really a serious option.
And so, down to business..
This story begins with the disappearance on July 4th, 1999, of Jessie (Jessica) Hunter, twin sister of Tori (Victoria) and daughters of Manchester Bay’s Sheriff, Big Jim Hunter. The girls could not be further apart in character, with Jessie being as outgoing and garrulous, as Tori is reserved and introspective. However, having lost their mother when they were very young, they are totally devoted to one another. So, when as time passes by, the only clue to Jessie’s whereabouts is her abandoned and deliberately sabotaged car, and Big Jim dies of a broken heart, a guilt-ridden Tori leaves the small town for good, vowing never to return.
Exactly twenty years to the day since Jessie’s disappearance and Tori, who is now a very successful FBI Agent living and working out of New York, receives a note in the post, containing details of a new disappearance, with an MO almost identical to that of Jessie’s still unsolved abduction, which will have her returning, albeit very reluctantly, back to the place of her childhood. Many of her former friends still live locally and are now well-respected members of a much-extended town, which Tori no longer recognises. Given the haste and circumstances of her departure Tori’s return is surprisingly welcomed and her friends connect with her almost as if she had never been away. Tori meets relative newcomer to Manchester Bay, widower and single parent, Will Braddock, who is chief detective for the Shepard County Sheriff’s Department. Sparks fly when Will and his colleagues don’t immediately make such a strong connection between the two cases as Tori does and as she is not there in any official FBI capacity, she has to use many rather ‘under the radar’ methods and call in numerous favours, to prove to Will that over the intervening twenty years, there have in fact been many similar disappearances of young girls, both from small towns in the surrounding areas and from adjoining States, none of which have been solved and which have never been correlated and cross-referenced for similarities.
Sparks of a different nature are also ignited when Tori and Will discover that, as two damaged souls, they have also been drawn together romantically and keeping work and pleasure separate becomes something of a juggling act, at which neither are very good!
Despite pressure from her FBI bosses to let the local force deal with what is becoming an evermore complex case involving many victims, Tori, who has eventually found a staunch ally for her theory in Will, calls on every available resource to research and track down a perpetrator who it is now clear, is known to his victims, especially when Will and she become personal targets for his games of cat and mouse. For the great and good of the community, Tori and Will’s conclusions are completely unpalatable, as by implication all their names are in the frame. When Tori makes the all-important link between the many cases, a suspect is quickly apprehended, despite his protestations of innocence. It takes the intervention of a third party to convince Will that they probably have the wrong man in custody, but by that time, Tori has gone missing, and the alert is raised….
Oh! How I do so hate it when my protagonists are left fearful for their lives. I guess you need to now know if both Will and Tori live to fight another day, and if they do, will that be together or apart…
Now that would be telling!!
Not quite a dual timeline story, there were one or two flashback to events which began some twenty years ago and have been happening, largely unnoticed, ever since.
For a crime thriller, this was actually quite a lengthy read, however some fluent, concise and well-signposted chapters, kept the action moving along at a cracking pace, totally immersive, gripping and realistically detailed. In fact, the chapter titles were short, one-line extracts from the narrative, which kept me alert looking for the words to appear and check out in what context they had been used. A unique approach which really worked for me and added great structure to the finished product.
In retrospection, the story was more multi-layered, intense and textured, than I had at first thought. The suspenseful atmosphere became more tense with every passing page, with the future progress of the case balanced on a knife-edge for most of the time, as the powers that be would have been more than happy to put it back on the ‘cold case’ shelf, rather than have it upset the established norm and continued prosperity of the town.
At roughly the halfway point, there was a short detour away from the main storyline, which also led to a change in location. However, this was such a clever ploy by the author, as it not only focussed the spotlight on Agent Tori Hunter conducting her ‘day job’, so to speak, but it also served to bring the two halves of the main storyline together, with plenty of clever background detail; another interesting break from the norm, which kept me glued to the pages as they sped by and a welcome ‘added extra’ to satisfy my ‘armchair traveller’ appetite. Some excellent descriptive and observational narrative and dialogue offered a strong awareness and sense of time and place, enough to drop me into this small and rather insular community, amongst this tight-knit group representing the good and great of the town, and to have me running scared for my life, amongst its hidden and long forgotten backroads.
I had thought myself to be one step ahead of the game when it came to suspects, but that would have been far too easy for an author who kept on adding red-herrings and twists to the storyline, like they were going out of fashion. The last man standing so to speak, was actually on my list, but nowhere near the top and was one of those runners who you would have least expected to beat the field and one you would certainly have never placed your bets on.
Author Roger Stelljes also did a great job of exploring and examining family relationships and the emotional impact certain traumatic events, experienced and witnessed in childhood, can continue to have in adult years, without anyone really realising. In Tori this hidden damage manifests itself openly and overtly, although she won’t admit to it and certainly doesn’t realise the problem she tries so hard to hide. It is easy to observe the fragility and frailty of her troubled mind, despite the false bravado and no-nonsense attitude she exudes, which can make her appear cold, calculating and very difficult to connect with. For Will, his emotions are much more of an open book, as he strives to remember his past life, accept its finality, yet not dwell too deeply on his loss, as he has the emotional welfare of his son at the front and centre of his mind and knows that the time is fast approaching when he needs to move on.
Altogether, a well-defined cast of background characters, some of whom were more fully developed than others, none of whom were particularly compelling, but all of whom played their parts to perfection, so in that respect were very authentic and given a strong voice with which to direct and guide the storyline.
Given the bombshell of the last couple of pages, I am wondering exactly how Roger develops this series, which is a good enough reason for me to invest in book #2 just as soon as possible!
A complimentary kindle download of this book, for review purposes, was made available by publisher Bookouture and the author, supplied via Amazon.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
Thank you so much for taking time to read my review, I appreciate your support.