THE GIRLS WHO DISAPPEARED
In a rural Wilshire town lies The Devil’s Corridor. A road which has witnessed eerie happenings from unexplained deaths to the sounds of a child crying at night.
But nothing more puzzling than the Olivia Rutherford case. Four girls drove home but after their car crashed only Olivia was found.
Twenty years later, journalist Jenna Halliday is covering the case.
But the locals aren’t happy with this stranger’s arrival. Least of all Olivia.
Jenna soon starts receiving threatening notes and it is clear someone wants her out of this town before she suffers a dark fate . . .
She finally got her wish after winning Marie Claire’s Debut Novel Award for her first book, The Sisters, which became a bestseller.
Claire is the award-winning author of several stand-alone thrillers, with The Couple At Number 9 becoming a number one Amazon bestseller and reaching number three on the Sunday Times bestsellers list. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies in the UK and have been translated into twenty languages.
She lives in Bath, England, with her family.
“They were singing. They were drunk. They were happy. That was what Olivia recalled most, afterwards. How happy her friends had been”
“Since the accident Olivia prefers the company of horses to people. Solid, dependable and comforting. They don’t let you down, or judge you, or get angry with you, or manipulative. They don’t answer back or hurl cruel words at you or trick you into doing something you aren’t comfortable with. You know where you are with them.”
“It’s hard to know what has become folklore and what is reality. But don’t all myths stem from some semblance of fact?”
“Being with him is like slipping on her favourite fleecy dressing gown and she worries that if she takes it off, she’ll be cold and naked and vulnerable”
“Maybe it’s been a gradual thing over the years, the gentle eroding of their love, like seawater over a pebble… She can’t even pinpoint the exact moment it changed. But it seems the stronger she gets the weaker their relationship becomes”
“Fear pierces her heart. She hates it when Wesley gets mad. Not that he’s ever hurt her. He’d never do that. He doesn’t even shout at her, not really. It’s more the resigned disappointment followed by the silent treatment that he stretches out like an elastic band, getting tauter and tauter until she can bear it no more”
“The truth wouldn’t set her free. Far from it. The truth was a Pandora’s box and she had to keep the lid firmly closed”
“She knows he won’t apologize for earlier. He never does. Instead, he’ll moon around her, like he’s the victim, until she’s forced to say sorry or make it up to him in some way even though she’s the wronged party”
“Don’t trust anyone. That’s what the cards are warning you, Jenna. Everyone is lying”
“My mind feels fractured, like looking at my reflection in a broken mirror. I can see different parts but can’t understand where they all fit”
“Three missing girls. A twenty-year mystery. A woman who may be able to crack this cold case”
When I accepted a complimentary Kindle download of this book for review, I was totally convinced that I was already familiar with previous stories written by this author. However, much to my dismay and shame, my memories must have been those of reading the premises, as I found at least two downloads of earlier books still lined up waiting to get to the top of my list. I aim to fix that just as soon as I possibly can, but until then, this is by default my first journey with a new to me author – and let me tell you, it was one heck of a roller coaster ride, so make sure you buckle up and get prepared!
The story begins in rural Wiltshire in 1998, when newly qualified driver Olivia and her three friends are returning home in the early hours of the morning, after a girl’s night out. Sally, Tamzin and Hetty are all a little the worse for wear, but happy with it. However, nominated driver Olivia is stone cold sober and very wary of the treacherous driving conditions, as they are on a notorious stretch of forest road locally known as ‘The Devil’s Corridor’ and the rain is hammering down. Olivia has made the unforgiveable mistake of not demanding that her back seat passengers should use their seat belts, so when suddenly her headlights throw up a figure stood in the middle of the road, and as she brakes harshly to avoid hitting it, the car skids, turns over and leaves the road. Olivia blacks out momentarily, but on regaining consciousness realises that she is trapped in the vehicle with her legs pinned to the steering wheel, and all three of her companions are missing. They are never found, and Olivia is left permanently disabled, after weeks in hospital and having been very lucky not to lose her leg!
Fast forward twenty years to 2018 and freelance journalist Jenna has travelled to Wiltshire from her home in Manchester for a week, hoping to gather material from this now cold case, in order to reawaken public interest in the story by making a podcast about it. She has based herself in a rented cabin on a small six berth site within the forest, just off the stretch of road where the accident had happened. Myth, legend and folklore abound in this neck of the woods, which is located near the site of many ancient stone circles, burial mounds and long barrows, so it comes as no surprise that right from the start, Jenna is left feeling uneasy and certain she is being watched, although she has no idea just how much danger she is really in, despite the warnings she receives to leave, but chooses to ignore, until someone ups the ante to an almost fatal level and she is lucky to escape unscathed.
The police officer who worked on the original accident and disappearance back in 1998, is more than willing to be interviewed by Jenna and also gives her the details of a current serving member of the force, who may be able to assist with ‘cold case’ enquiries. Dale is only too happy to help Jenna gather information and interviews for the podcast and rather places himself in position as her protector and advisor during her stay, especially when it becomes clear that the threats against her are not idle and there are forces at work which relate to many more crimes than just that of the disappearance of three young women. However, in Jenna’s heightened state of fear no one is innocent and for a short time she even includes Dale on her suspect list, especially when she has proof that he lied about how well he knew one of the girls, although when challenged, he does have a good reason for having been economical with the truth.
Once a reticent Olivia breaks through the barrier of non-cooperation she has erected between herself and Jenna and begins to open up to her, unseen forces decree that both women are deemed to be a threat to certain freedoms and nefarious activities, and therefore need to be stopped at any price, even down to Olivia being drugged and left in a field of ancient standing stones, as a reminder to her not to befriend Jenna or participate in the podcast. As Jenna nears the end of her visit and is preparing to return home to prepare the material she has amassed into her finished broadcast, there are more people than she could ever have imagined, who cannot allow that to happen, and they are desperate enough to add murder to their growing list of offences, to ensure that the podcast is never aired.
Even when the dust has settled, the court cases are over, and there has been a laying to rest of some long-held grief and loss, someone still clings to that final secret which will probably never be uncovered, as the truth has been cleverly redirected away from its real perpetrator. If only Jenna and Dale knew the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
This wasn’t strictly speaking a dual timeline story, as there were only a couple of flashbacks to where it all began in 1998. Most of the narrative and dialogue was focussed on Jenna’s renewed interest in the case in 2018, although there were several inserts from 1980s Thailand, which at first seemed totally out of context and unconnected to the storyline, even though this subplot was interesting in its own right. I knew of course that this would be relevant to the eventual outcome of Jenna’s investigations, and I had my suspicions about how it might fit into the picture, but I was left to drive myself silly wondering what the common denominator was, right until the very end, when the final pieces of the jigsaw were slotted into place. With the exception of what seemed to be these randomly placed extracts, almost all of which are narrated by someone we come to know as Stace, most of the remaining narrative is written from Jenna and Olivia’s perspectives, in short, well signposted, digestible and easy to navigate chapters.
This was a well-constructed, multi-layered, and textured storyline, which made for compulsive reading. Intense and suspenseful from beginning to end. There were so many separate strands to a case which became ever more complicated with each new person Jenna interviewed, as their stories seemed to be intrinsically linked and tangled together, although she couldn’t quite work out how. Of course, she never had the advantage of being on the outside looking in, so once I had four mothers and their four daughters firmly in my sights, things became a little clearer. However, her journalists sixth sense did warn Jenna that no one was who they seemed to be, almost everyone had something to hide and there were important pieces of information being withheld from her, which meant that joining up all the dots to arrive at a satisfactory outcome was almost impossible. Even when it was all over, I don’t really think that either Jenna or the police realised just how devious and manipulative the many players in the case were, or how far ranging was and had been, the depravity of their multiple crimes.
Author Claire Douglas certainly crammed a whole raft of socially unacceptable behaviours and crimes into a single storyline, any one of which would have had the police running around in circles and would have made a complete story in themselves. She built an excellent subplot around coercive, controlling behaviour and gaslighting in a relationship. The devastating consequences of international drug smuggling, of county lines drug dealing, and the life-threatening consequences when ‘bad’ goods are released into the system. And ultimately, the lengths to which some people will go, to cover their tracks, no matter who gets hurt along the way, as if how unsuspecting and innocent they are, just doesn’t figure in their sick psyche.
I found that none of the cast of characters were particularly likeable individuals, although to a point they all had to rely on one another not to break their personal vows of silence, as it would have only taken one small chink in someone’s armour for the whole pack of cards to come tumbling down – which it did eventually, with quite spectacular results. Their strong and forceful presence manipulated my thoughts and drained my energy. There wasn’t one amongst them with whom I even began to empathise or connect with, let alone invest in, although I so wanted to believe in Jenna and Dale. Olivia’s long-term partner Wesley has to be the most sickening, cringeworthy character and really well defined for me to hate him so intensely. He has been there for her throughout, treating her like a fragile object who constantly needs him by her side, cossetting and supporting her, when in fact Olivia is made of much stronger stuff than that, but only when she finally wakes up to the true nature of his ‘help’ and the web he is building around her, hoping to keep her trapped and submissive. Even her mother, Olivia’s second rock, turns out to be far from innocent, truthful or reliable and to be honest, I don’t know if I could be as stoic and determined to carry on if I had been in Olivia’s shoes, when I discovered the true nature of my heritage.
Whilst Jenna is away, her husband chooses this time to decide that a mutually agreed short break in their marriage, should become more permanent, leaving her to sort out the remnants of her shattered life and explain things to their young son on her return. However, her short liaison with Dale, from the local Wiltshire police, charged with picking up the cold case from the authority’s perspective, has sown the seeds of a growing friendship. So, whilst right now Jenna needs some private time with her son to begin rebuilding their lives, she and Dale are leaving the door open for a more solid relationship to possibly develop in the future.
I like an author who can also take me on an armchair journey, with the attention to detail and descriptive qualities with which they paint the physical locations of their storylines. So, whilst perhaps the Thailand experience was very short and sweet, quite light on time and place, with its focus more on storyline and character development; the main body of the work was set in the southern English county of Wiltshire, which pleased me no end. I am a Wiltshire ” Moonraker ” (this nickname originated from a story of smugglers who managed to foil the local Excise men by hiding their alcohol, possibly French brandy in barrels or kegs, in a village pond) born and bred, so tracking the real places named in the book, together with the fictional name given to the central town, only added to the enjoyment of the reading experience for me. With Avebury, Stonehenge and so many other standing stone circles, archaic burial grounds and sites of religious gatherings, in relatively close proximity, it wasn’t difficult to build upon the naturally claustrophobic and otherworldly aura which surrounds them, especially during the cover of darkness.
Whilst the action wasn’t particularly fast paced, the many clever twists and turns, the web of deception, dark secrets and lies, all kept things moving along steadily and seamlessly. One or two of the coincidences did stretch credulity a little, however they definitely added more to the storyline than they detracted from it, so overall I was quite satisfied with the way the plot was built and structured and after my initial reaction of ‘how long is this book?’ the four hundred or so pages had sped by, leaving me satisfied but completely exhausted, and still interested to know how those couple of loose ends might eventually get tied up, if they ever did!
A complimentary kindle download of this book for review, was made available by the publisher Michael Joseph/Penguin Random House and supplied by NetGalley.
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 for taking the time to read my review, I appreciate your support