The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

The Forgotten GirlsThe Forgotten Girls

by Owen Laukkanen
Series: Stevens & Windermere, #6

Hardcover, 355 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017

Read: March 25 – 27, 2017

I’m really of two minds about this one — it was a pretty rock-solid thriller, full of suspense and all the other things you want in a book about a serial killer being hunted down over several states. On the other hand, it’s a lousy Stevens & Windermere novel — it could have literally been any other detectives/agents/maverick cops and the book would’ve played out the same way.

For years — women who no one will miss, women who are pretty much expected to leave town at any moment — have been the target of “the rider.” He’s a presence — some would say an Urban Legend — on the “High Line” (a railroad route in Montana, Idaho, Washington), and is responsible for the deaths of many: small town waitresses, prostitutes, runaways, train hoppers. Since these women weren’t noticed by many, were expected to be seeking opportunities out of the small towns they live in, and so on — no one raises a fuss over their disappearances (or the eventual discovery of their remains after the snow abates. A girl named Ash feels like she has to ignore the warnings about the High Line to make it somewhere in record time. She becomes one of “the riders”‘ victims — her friend decides to get a little vengeance and goes off to hunt “the ride” and make sure no one else forgets these women.

About the same time, Stevens and Windermere learn about Ash’s murder — and soon the begin to learn about others. So while Mathers stays home to handle the technical and research portions of the investigation, the agents hit the road to dig up some better clues. Which leads to uncovering many, many more deaths; a Herculean effort to save the friend’s life (hard to do while she’s running from the law); and a showdown with “the rider.”

What I liked: the suspense, the way that Laukkanen told the story (although I admit having a little trouble keeping names straight at the beginning) — bouncing between perspectives while ratcheting up the suspense. I’m not always the biggest fan of this maneuver, but Laukkanen nailed it. The world — the culture of train hopping — was fascinating, and I’m willing to bet really well researched and pretty based in reality. Overall, it’s not the best thriller I’ve read lately, but it was very satisfying.

What I didn’t like: as I said, it could’ve been the most generic pairing of a male/female FBI agents on the hunt for this killer. Until maybe the last 50 pages — but even then, it didn’t need to be Kirk Stevens or Carla Windermere, but it made it easier to handle the emotional beats for them to be the central characters. Also, while I absolutely bought the killer, his motivation, his twisted way of thinking — but when he was responding to questions, explaining himself? Ugh. He sounded like he was reading off of a list of sexual predator prejudices from Wikipedia. Honestly, you take out that one segment where he’s responding to questions about his motivation and the whole book is better.

I’m still planning on reading whatever Laukkanen puts out for the next 5< years, don’t misunderstand me. This one just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped. Not a bad book — just a bad seines entry.


3 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

The Watcher in the Wall by Owen Laukkanen

The Watcher in the WallThe Watcher in the Wall

by Owen Laukkanen
Series: Stevens & Windermere, #5

Hardcover, 354 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016

Read:April 4 – 5, 2016

Not too long after the events of The Stolen Ones, a classmate of Kirk Stevens’ daughter, Andrea, a victim of bullying and neglect, kills himself. Andrea wants justice for the classmate — she wants the bullies punished, she wants the message to go forth that this kind of thing can’t happen, and she wants her father to insure that happens. He sympathizes, he even empathizes, but he really can’t do anything. But he pokes around a little bit — and he and Carla Windermere discover that there was a suicide pact — that some girl in Philly is supposed to be killing herself now, too.

They may not be able to do anything for the dead boy, but they can try to keep this girl alive.

Only . . . there is no girl. Or at least, she isn’t who she said she was. Mental alarm bells start going off, and the two agent soon figure out that there’s one person out there online, posing as a concerned stranger, helping others to commit suicide — maybe even talking them into it, for whatever reason they might have. Once you start to learn the reason, you become convinced that this person is a certain level of despicable.

The original suicide brought up a lot of memories for Carla — things she’d tried to forget from her school days. She throws herself into this investigation, putting even more pressure on herself than usual. She talks to her partner and her boyfriend less, develops a shorter fuse, and drinks and smokes worse than she usually does. She also refuses to tell anyone what’s going on == she’ll only say she’s trying to save kids’ lives.

The two start traveling the country, learning more about certain types of online forums than anyone should know, trying to hunt down their suspect before he/she gets talks another teen into making a mortal choice. The novel has breakneck pace, and enough twists to keep you engaged — all of which is good.

Because of the focus on Windermere, and the pressing nature of the investigation (not that their other cases have been leisurely), we spent absolutely no time with the Stevens family after Andrea brought a witness to her father. That’s just strange — granted, it wasn’t until after I was finished with the novel that I realized we hadn’t spent time with them — but I knew something was missing. The Stevens gang has been such a fixture for at least a few chapters in these books, to not have them is jarring. But we did get a lot of time with Carla and Mathers — actually about the same as usual (maybe less). But in comparison, we got a lot more. Still, the lack of personal lives in this novel drove home two things — the urgency Carla felt, and the weight of the rest of the emotions/regrets/anger she was dealing with.

This is the second novel in the last half-year that I’ve read dealing with people being talked into suicide. Both very different, both compelling in their own rights — this was a tad more believable, really. Still, I hope this isn’t a trend that continues.

I couldn’t believe how quickly I sped through this — not just because Laukkanen writes with lean, confident prose, but it was the characters, the plot — you read this and you just have to know how it turns out (okay, sure, you are rightly convinced that Kirk and Carla will get their man — but how, and what the body count will be along the way, that’s the question). Yeah, the weakest of the 5, but it was satisfying, entertaining and engaging. Good enough for me, and enough to keep me coming back for more.


3 Stars

The Stolen Ones by Owen Laukkanen

The Stolen OnesThe Stolen Ones

by Owen Laukkanen

Hardcover, 358 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015
Series: Stevens & Windermere, #4
Read: March 24 – 26, 2015

Stevens felt his stomach drop out as he descended from the Black Hawk onto the Atlantic Prince‘s bow. Wondered how a Minnesota state cop found himself in this kind of predicament all the time.

You do kind of have to wonder about that, don’t you, Stevens? The readers, however, are just glad you do find yourself in these predicaments.

I don’t have a lot to say about The Stolen Ones that I didn’t have to say about Laukkanen’s previous novels. But let’s see what I can dig up.

Irina’s from Romania — not having the best life (but not a bad one, no matter what she thinks), so she’s easily suckered by a handsome American man into the chance to come here and become rich and famous. Her little sister, Catalina, comes along for the ride. Sure, they have to be smuggled into the country with a large number of women in a shipping container, but hey — it’s worth it, right? America! (cue the Neil Diamond song)

Once they get here, of course, rich and famous are out the window. The best they can hope for now is, alive and doing more than surviving. The shipping container is loaded onto a truck and driven through a variety of states, with drop offs at various brothels, strip clubs and nastier places, were a selection of the women are left behind. Along the way, Irina and Catalina attempt an escape — Irina makes it, Catalina doesn’t, and an off-duty Minnesotan sheriff’s deputy is dead.

Kirk Stevens is brought in to investigate the deputy’s death, and soon starts to figure out what’s going on. Which is clearly beyond the scope of his office, but hey! He’s conveniently just been named to a task force with the FBI and his buddy, Carla Windermere. The two race around the country, looking for Catalina (who they really don’t expect to find) and the rest of the women — and, more realistically, they want to stop the people who smuggled them into the country.

As always, Laukkanen does a great job with the villains of the piece — whatever the particular crime (or crimes, usually) that they’re committing, he makes them people. People with hopes, dreams, problems — not just committing crimes. In fact, for the most part Stevens and Windermere are distractions, complications — not the enemy, just an irritant (an irritant that gets worse and worse the further we get in the book).

The Stevens family is always a good way to ground these characters — Mrs. Stevens (can’t believe I forgot her name) gets to do more than nag Kirk about being safe and talk dirty to him. The whole 16-year-old daughter with boyfriend parallel to the safety of the Romanians was a bit too one the nose for me, but Laukkanen pulled it off. And when else is he going to have the “first boyfriend” story? In Book 5 with Stevens having flashbacks to this case? Nah, that wouldn’t have worked.

With 158 chapters in 358 pages, The Stolen Ones moves along at a good clip. The pacing’s tight, the narrative gripping — everything you want — and readers have come to expect — from this series. It makes for a decent jumping on point, too. Highly recommended.


4 Stars

Kill Fee by Owen Laukkanen

Kill Fee (Stevens & Windermere, #3)Kill Fee

by Owen Laukkanen

Hardcover, 400 pg.
Putnam Adult, 2014
Series: Stevens & Windermere, #3
Read: June 4, 2014

Like I indicated back when I reviewed Criminal Enterprises, the biggest trick for Laukkanen is coming up with some reason to get his FBI Agent and his State Police Officer together to work on a case. Once that’s dealt with, we’re off to the races and anything goes. This time, our two heroes are hanging out with each other and witness the crime together. Simple and effective way to get them working together. Easy as pie.

This time they’re on the trail of a hit man who killed a billionaire right in front of them. But he’s not your typical hitman, there was something about his face — his eyes — that set him apart from others. His shooting (and subsequent kills) gets Stevens and Windermere hopping all over the country again on his trail.

Once again, we have a criminal in the midst of a very successful crime spree, which goes haywire about the same time as Stevens and Windermere start investigating. Not because of them — although they make it worse — but because of the heart. Sure, that’s a recurring plot point in this series — but that’s not a complaint, or a weakness, really. Because it makes sense, it seems real, there’s million different ways to use that plot point — and because Laukkanen pulls it off so well. So it comes across as a common bond amongst the people that he depicts, not a laziness.

There’s heightened emotional stakes between partners on the law side, too, as the Stevens and Windermere deal with the nature of their relationship (I really, really liked the way they dealt with this). Things are intense for Stevens on the home front, too — between his wife’s discontent with the new direction his career is taking and his daughter still dealing with the aftermath of her ordeal in Criminal Enterprises, he has more than enough to deal with even without a multi-state killing spree.

As is becoming commonplace in this series — a great plot, good pacing, a twisted criminal (truly despicable), good characterization. Everything moved well, things clicked just as it should. Laukkanen is becoming as dependable and reliable as Kirk Stevens, and as bold as Carla Windermere. I’m already getting impatient waiting for the next.


3.5 Stars

Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen

I feel like I’ve been giving out too many 4-stars lately, and originally rated this 3-stars, but after writing this, I knew it didn’t deserve that. This is such a good read, maybe something closer to a 5, honestly. I feel strange saying this, but hopefully, I’ve got some more mediocre reads in my near future


Criminal EnterpriseCriminal Enterprise

by Owen Laukkanen
Hardcover, 406 pg.
Putnam Adult, 2013
Series: Stevens & Windermere, #2

As much as I enjoyed The Professionals, I was unsure I wanted to read a follow-up. How tortured would the contrivances needed to bring these two investigators back together be? I was figuring pretty tortured. Would we be in for another group of criminals allllmost smart enough to get away with it all?

Laukkanen pulled it off, though — by taking pretty much everything about The Professionals and turning it on its head — the criminals aren’t nearly as professional (no pun intended); Stevens and Windermere are kept apart — professionally and personally — for most of the book; the action is all in the St. Paul area, so we see the agents in their home environment, not jet setting all over the country. What’s the same? Criminal Activity is just as gripping, just as tense, moves at the same breakneck speed.

Carla Windermere is languishing at the FBI office, an outsider even two years after the headline-making case she and Stevens cracked together. Whether its due to her race, gender, or personality is hard to say, but she’s not one of the team — and she likes it as much as she hates it. She misses the excitement, the challenge of the higher-profile case.

BCA Agent Kirk Stevens has thrown himself into his family and his work following his heroics from The Professionals. He’s very involved with his daughter and marriage. He’s still doing important work for the state — like cold case murder investigations, providing closure to families still wondering what’s happened to loved ones. He’s nice and safe, just what his wife wants, but it’s driving him crazy. He wants the excitement he got a taste of recently, he wants the sense of fulfillment that he got from stopping an active criminal.

Carter Tomlin, a formerly prosperous accountant is laid off and his debts are mounting — he’s too proud, too self-reliant to look for help, won’t bring himself to sell off possessions, or ask his wife to take a full time job. He’s essentially Minnesota’s answer to Walter White — his pride won’t let him do what he needs to do, so in a moment of panicked inspiration he holds up a bank. Not only does he get some easy money to hold off the debt collectors, he comes alive in a way he hadn’t realized he could before. So he commits more and more robberies, the rush building each time.

When the paths of these three discontented people collide, havoc ensues.

If Laukkanen’s third book in this series is half as good, I don’t care how he gets Stevens and Windermere together or what felons they are trying to take down — doesn’t matter, I’m all in.


4 Stars