Canadian author Pyper's highly successful first novel (a huge bestseller Up North) is a teasing mystery that blossoms into a nailbiting courtroom drama, seasoned with a carefully measured soupçon of the supernatural.
The story begins with a beautiful bit of misdirection: a terse `prologue` that shows a teenaged boy and girl, who are cousins, `making out` in a canoe, which tips over, with disastrous results. The reader assumes (only half-correctly) that this incident is linked to the occurrence that brings burnt-out attorney Bartholomew Crane to the drab Ontario town of Murdoch, where two popular high-school girls have disappeared, and are presumed dead, at the hand of their English teacher (and secretive companion): `Barth's` sullen client Thomas Tripp. Crane's efforts to defend the uncommunicative Tripp (to whom circumstantial evidence points damningly) lead him to interviews with both missing girls' fathers (one a smiling blank, the other a vengeful religious zealot), the town's well-informed head librarian-newspaper editor, and a forthright old lady, Helen Arthurs, who fills Crane in on a weird local legend: the story of `Murdoch's Loch Ness Monster,` a distraught mental patient (and war refugee) who, having lost custody of her children, drowned in a nearby lake, and has since purportedly `returned,` to `take` other people's children, to replace her own lost ones. Inevitably, there's a mystery in the brooding Bartholomew Crane's past, which Pyper connects—smashingly—with the several mysteries of Murdoch, as the novel drives toward its (truly) surprising conclusion. Lost Girls borrows an important (though, to be fair, not crucial) plot detail from Peter Straub's Ghost Story, and its case is weakened by a single glaring improbability: the ease with which everyone here assumes the missing girls' deaths, though no bodies are in evidence (it seems more than just possible they might be runaways). No matter. Pyper quickly builds, and skillfully maintains a full head of increasingly suspenseful steam, and keeps the reader off balance, and hooked, throughout.
In its best moments, a Canadian Anatomy of a Murder. A savvy, stylish, and very entertaining debut.