The crime/mystery genres, although I enjoy them greatly, are not particularly my forte as a reader. Horror, however, is. But anyone who reads at least a half dozen or so good horror novels and several good crime/mystery novels can understand that these genres often share much in common. For instance, horror typically explores the dark side of the human experience, whether it is metaphorically represented by supernatural elements or more grounded in the real world. Crime fiction, especially when it is violent crime, often does the same.
Indeed, when we look to the progenitors of what we now define as the mystery genre—writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle—many of them also wrote horror and did not distinguish between the genres in the way that we do today. And, as an interesting observation, I have personally found that the novels which have actually scared me the most are technically considered “mysteries” and not “horror,” further showing that the distinction is sometimes an arbitrary one.
When viewed by today’s standards, perhaps what distinguishes a mystery novel that could also be considered a horror or thriller novel from a mystery novel that couldn’t is more a matter of atmosphere and delivery than of subject matter. This being so, The Silent Girls by Eric Rickstad is definitely a novel that, in my book, would fall into the category of horror/mystery.
Truly, the prologue alone could argue my case. It is like something out of a nightmare—one of the creepiest, scariest scenes in a book that I can remember reading over the past several years. Coming from a longtime horror fan, that’s saying a lot. And while nothing else in the novel quite matches the prologue in its nightmarish quality, there were nevertheless numerous moments that sent frissons of dread shooting through my veins, demonstrating once again that the great fear that drives the horror genre and binds it to the mystery genre is the fear of the unknown.
The Silent Girls takes place in and around Canaan, Vermont, and follows former detective-turned-P.I. Frank Rath as he unofficially helps his friend on the Canaan police force, Harlan Grout, investigate the disappearance of Grout’s niece. With his daughter off at college, Rath starts out helping mostly as a favor and a way to stave off the boredom of a winter in rural Vermont but eventually gets pulled into the mystery of the situation, a mystery that is heightened when Rath, Grout and their colleagues realize that the disappearance of Grath’s niece is likely connected to a series of missing person cases, all of them young women.
On the surface, this all looks and sounds familiar enough, but Rickstad throws us enough hints along the way to keep us intrigued and suggest that this case isn’t quite what it seems at first (and indeed it turns out that it isn’t). And the entire time we are kept wondering what the connection is between the mystery that’s transpiring and the novel’s horrific intro. But even if that weren’t enough for some, Rickstad’s prose would make it so.
Eric Rickstad has a wonderfully literary style. His writing here is some of the best, most compelling that I’ve had the pleasure of reading in any novel in a while, regardless of genre. This is surely a book that mystery buffs will gobble up over a series of late nights, but it is also one that literary snobs could savor. His descriptions of the harsh, unforgiving Vermont winter landscape and of the characters’ stream of emotions are precise and vivid. Even the few, sparse moments of romance feel achingly real and spot on as do the existential meditations on the nature of evil and the criminal mind.
Released in late January of this year, The Silent Girls made it to the New York Times bestseller list several weeks ago and has remained there since. It deserves it. And apparently Rickstad is not only hard at work on a sequel to Silent Girls (with that ending, there had better be a sequel!) but will also be releasing another new book this summer. You can bet I’ll be asking the publisher for review copies of both.