In Stichter’s (The Water and Murder Flow South, 2016, etc.) latest series thriller, a cold case involving missing high schoolers leads to the discovery of a methodical serial killer.
Investigator Van Vanarsdale has spent the last seven years on an FBI counterterrorism task force. Now back at California’s Orange County Sheriff’s Department, he starts with a few old, unsolved cases. In one, a high school couple, Carlos Fuentes and Cindy Ashae, disappeared near a hiking area after their prom in 1972, with only a burned-out Volkswagen van left behind. Carlos is still missing, but Cindy’s remains later turned up in 1999 in a container buried beneath the school’s time capsule. Previous investigators haven’t made any headway since, but Van’s diligent interviews lead him to a new person of interest: Allison Connors, a former English teacher. She was a noted intellectual and loner who left the school in 1978. Van can’t find a trace of her since her departure, or anything about her before 1963. But her father had a lethal accident in 1966 while hiking on the John Muir Trail, and Van thinks that experienced backpacker Allison could be linked to a number of other nearby disappearances and deaths. However, finding and catching a potential serial killer won’t be easy. Stichter immediately makes readers aware that Allison instigated her father’s accident, but he still delivers a taut mystery. Allison’s back story is otherwise murky, and Van’s investigation unfolds naturally and engagingly, and it takes time before the suspect enters his line of sight. Supporting characters are memorable, even if their primary purpose is simply assisting Van; the best are Sti and Rob, backpacking retirees who help the investigator on the possibly treacherous hiking trail (and who appeared in the author’s previous novels). The geography is fondly detailed throughout with “sporadic rock outcrops” and “intersecting and diverging canyons.” Unfortunately, the story’s timeline has distracting contradictions: victims from 1969, ’76, and ’79 are all later referenced as vanishing or dying in different years.
An unhurried but gripping mystery, despite a few errors.