The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joël Dicker #BookReview

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In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of three murders.

Confounding their superiors, two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer, earning themselves handsome promotions and the lasting respect of their colleagues.

But twenty years later, just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still at liberty, perhaps ready to strike again. Before she can give any more details however, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears without trace, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the awful possibility that her suspicions might have been accurate.

What happened to Stephanie Mailer?

What did she know?

And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?

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First of all I just want to say how great the cover is of the proof copy I received (courtesy of MacLehose Press and distributed at the Capital Crime festival 2019). I swear it’s even more gorgeous than the published novel and people even asked me if I was reading true crime (if you want to see it head over to my IG page).

Now The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer is a massive novel of 635 pages. This usually scares me so I’m not in a habit of picking a book this size but since I received a free copy and it’s really difficult (well, virtually impossible) not to see it standing in your library, I decided to gather my courage and just dive in. Before you continue I might want to say that even though I’m trying hard not to, there may or may not be spoilers ahead, so continue at your own risk :-).

In the first few pages we find ourselves witness to the first opening night of the Orphea Theater Festival of 1994 and while most people are at this event, four people will not live to see another day as they are brutally murdered. After these dreadful events we jump to 2014 where Stephanie Mailer talks to Detective Jesse Rosenberg and she tells him that he didn’t in fact solve that case in 1994, he made a mistake. Before she can talk to him again, she disappears… but the last words she spoke to him were quite memorable:

She raised her hand and placed it at the level of my eyes.
“What do you see captain?”
“Your hand”
“I was showing you my fingers.”
“But I see your hand”, I said, not understanding.
“That’s the problem right there” she said. “You saw what you wanted to see, not what you were being shown. That’s what you missed twenty years ago.”

This little statement played on my mind and I just think I’m really good at this thing or the author really underestimates his readers because 420 pages later the detective came to the same findings as I had after page 16 and the novel can finally take off.

The two cases and timelines are obviously connected, solve one and you’ll solve the other but there’s a lot to untangle and the author makes the detectives really run around. In the end I felt the denouement of the plot was clever, I never could have foreseen how things fit together and there was much more at play than I had expected but the execution was a bit slow and winding. The plot was speckled with red herrings and twists but I knew where to focus my attention to, it only wasn’t getting me anywhere and it frustrated me at the beginning that they weren’t looking where they should.

Apart from that, the other problem I encountered was that the author hammered the term ‘The Darkest Night’ into my reader’s brain so much, it started to annoy me, especially since it wasn’t clear what it meant, apart from the fact that it became some urban legend referring to THAT night in 1994. Yes, The Darkest Night is also the name of a play but after all these pages I STILL DON’T KNOW what the play is about, even when they practice the first scene of the play over and over again. The director of the play – a former police officer – is also an utterly weird guy and it didn’t feel very believable considering his previous profession. Bottomline is that the play is a big part of the story and in the end it marvelously brings all the side characters, the famous theater critic, the CEO with his mistress, the father with his daughter, back to Orphea and I was surprised when the who, how and why of the 1994 killings was revealed. Unsurprising, the final 150 pages or so were the best part of the story for me and I couldn’t put it away then, needing to know the answers and feeling I was getting closer and closer to the truth. A truth that is a real shocker after all

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review. This is my honest opinion.