Paper Ghosts – Julia Heaberlin

Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Grace was twelve when her sister Rachel, seven years older, disappeared near their Texas home. No one ever found where she went, but Grace never gave up the search. The main suspect was a renowned photographer named Carl Feldman, who was arrested and charged with the abduction and murder of another young woman in the same area around the same time. He was not convicted due to lack of evidence, but Grace has her own ideas of how to get justice for Rachel and the disappeared.

Eleven years later and Feldman is living in a home for those released from prison or similarly existing on the edges of society. He has been diagnosed as suffering from dementia and has no power in his left arm. He’s also cranky as all hell.  Grace, using fake ID, ingratiates herself into his life and abode by pretending to be his long-lost daughter. She decides that she’s going to take her ‘Dad’ on a road-trip to try to jog his memory in the hope of finding out what he did with her sister and any others he might have slain. She’s effectively trying to abduct him with a view to eventually killing him after she gets the information she wants.

Now this is all very good, but unfortunately there’s no evidence that Carl had anything to do with her sister’s disappearance beyond his strong but not conclusive connection to the one disappeared woman. There had also been a number of similar disappearances many years before and Grace is convinced that Carl is responsible for all of them, carried out during a psychopathic spree when he was also taking award-winning photographs.

Grace manages to get Carl, and the home manager, to agree to his spending 10 days on the road with the young woman, now 23. Grace at 5ft 2inches, feels she has prepared herself for this time and Carl, at 6ft 6inches, appears to pose no threat to her, in her obsessed mind at least. But when they step out of the home to get into the car, Carl inadvertently displays full use of his supposedly disabled left arm. He also appears more lucid than he has ever been.

Now any normal person, especially a small woman, would hesitate to continue with someone she suspects of being a serial killer. As they are heading into remote places where she is trying to jog his memory about his murders thereby possibly reactivating his homicidal tendencies, you will see how this story-line is flawed from the beginning. It doesn’t become anymore sensible or believable throughout.

Rebel Voice has noticed how even a poor plot can be made somewhat tolerable by good writing. That’s the case in this instance. Julia Heaberlin is a fine writer. Her characters are consistent even if not based on reality . Her descriptions of the countryside are evocative, as is her presentation of social interaction. Given a different approach this could have been both a very good story and concept. Julia Heaberlin can drive, very well as it happens, but she just chose the wrong type of vehicle.

The tale is told in the first person by Grace. Each day is detailed with some flashbacks to Grace’s history with her beloved sister and entry into adult life. There is also the requisite love interest, in this case the FBI agent initially tasked with finding Rachel. They don’t begin their relationship until Grace is in college and it falters but retains potential. Andy suspects that Grace has plans that are not going to make him happy but is powerless to stop her other than to try to follow her as she traipses around Texas with a possible serial killer for company.

Matters become even more complicated when an attempt is made on Grace’s life by person or persons unknown. Carl is the one to save her. Hmm… the plot thickens and it would seem to call for the intervention of the Scooby Gang. Sadly Shaggy was arrested for stealing Scooby Snacks from Walmart and when Daphne intervened she was tasered, and then enthusiastically frisked, repeatedly, by an underpaid security guard with a history of sexual abusing women. Fred was, at that time, performing in a budget gay porn movie and Thelma had joined the White House Administration only to be fired for questioning Donald Trump when he claimed that India was being run by Apaches and that’s why they hated white people so much. He wanted to buy Goa but thought it was an amusement park outside Delhi and thus Thelma became surplus to requirement. That makes about as much sense as Paper Ghosts.

For those who don’t care, it turns out that Carl didn’t kill Rachel or some of the other girls, but likely did kill the young mother he was charged with but not convicted of. It transpires that, because Carl is a very good photographer and observer of human nature and body language, he sees something in a photo of Rachel that no one else has. It’s this photo that leads Grace and Carl straight to the place where Rachel is buried, and they eventually discover what happened to her. The men, there are two of them, who were trying to kill Rachel, were both involved in the drowning of another young woman years previously. She was raped first. They feared Grace was getting too close to the truth during her investigations into Carl. Grace had been persistently blaming Carl for the murder.

Paper Ghosts is a very well written book with a terrible premise. It could have and should have been great but, instead, ended up being a frustrating expedition across Texas. At least the reader gets a nice depiction of the rugged Texas countryside, and an introduction to the people there, firm and welcome participants across the Rebel Voice platform. Other than that, Paper Ghosts is a bust.

Sult scale rating: 4 out of 10. This is a disappointing novel as it promised much but failed to deliver. The premise was interesting but the plot was so stretched as to have snapped fairly early on. The author is undoubtedly talented, but better planning on plot is required for future offerings. Rebel Voice recommends that you give this one a miss.

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