Twenty years ago, three young friends vanished from the scene of an accident, which left another badly injured. Now in Claire Douglas’ The Girls Who Disappeared, journalist Jenna Halliday arrives in town to cover the milestone anniversary, only to discover that loss, secrets and local lore still haunt the place and its inhabitants.
Twenty years ago: One rainy night, Olivia Rutherford is driving three friends home when a figure in the road causes her to swerve and crash. Regaining consciousness, she finds herself alone in the car – her friends have vanished.
Now: Journalist Jenna Halliday visits the close-knit community of Stafferbury to persuade Olivia to talk and solve the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. But Olivia won’t speak.
Switching between two main timelines, and including a third (from around the time of the accident) in flashback, the story’s told from the dual perspective of Jenna (the journalist) and accident survivor, Olivia. The author brings several local characters (including two distinct friendship groups) into play, while also creating the creepy atmosphere in the woodland surrounding the small Wiltshire town of Stafferbury and the growing sense of unease which Jenna (and this reader!) quickly began to feel.
Claire Douglas keeps us guessing as to how that second timeline fits in with the girls’ story, along with what secrets the townspeople are hiding but I can’t fault the timing of each reveal, which made it hard to put the book down. She ensures that we never lose sight of the central mystery while making Jenna’s arrival trigger some troubling new goings-on. With both past and present-day events set against the backdrop of local legend—something which Claire Douglas uses to great effect here—these take on an altogether more sinister aspect which only serves to heighten the mystery surrounding them. I loved this blend of local lore with the enigma of the three girls’ disappearance all those years earlier and the resurgence in strange occurrences during Jenna’s time spent there on assignment. I thought it worked well and, given how Claire Douglas brings it all together so deftly, was a particular strength of the book.
While I warmed to her for the most part, Jenna does have some moments of utter stupidity, such as when she takes off on her own through the woods near where someone’s been found dead, for example. I found myself repeatedly telling her that no-one knew where she was and wouldn’t be able to help, if she ran into trouble. But moments like those also helped to make her more relatable as a character. After all, she’s a journalist under pressure to deliver by a deadline and desperate to get to the bottom of a 20-year-old mystery. And besides, sometimes it’s all too tempting to take off and do things on impulse.
While Jenna interviews the townspeople and tries to find a way to approach her, we also hear things from Olivia’s perspective. This builds a more complete picture of how far and in what ways the ripples of impact travel, as we not only discover how the accident has impacted the town and its inhabitants but also, the young woman directly involved. I really felt for Olivia, the survivor of the accident, and the girl who is left behind by it, in so many ways. Especially since she stays within that same community, with all the suspicion, stigma, and survivor’s guilt which that entails. It makes the revelations, which come later in the book, all the more impactful and devastating for having met her early on and heard her story this way.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how all the pieces of the puzzle came together and thought that the local myth and legend, which had grown up around the small town, added this intriguing, extra dimension to the story. What starts out as a decidedly creepy and chilling cold case mystery becomes a cruel and disturbing domestic thriller, written by an author who only goes from strength to strength. The Girls Who Disappeared might well be Claire Douglas’ most complex and assured novel to date, and I thought it was exceptional. Don’t miss out on The Girls Who Disappeared.
The Girls Who Disappeared by Claire Douglas is published by Penguin Michael Joseph and is available as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK (affiliate link), Bookshop.org (affiliate link), Hive and Waterstones. For more on the author and her books, check out her Facebook Page, or follow her over on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley.