About the Book:
Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who once took photographs. That was before he was tried for murder and acquitted. Before dementia and his admission to a Texas care facility. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip.
Only she’s not his daughter, and, if she has her way, he’s not coming back . . .
Because Carl’s past has finally caught with him. The woman driving the car is convinced he’s guilty, and that he’s killed other young women. Including her sister Rachel.
Now they’re driving across Texas, following his photographs, his clues, his crimes. To see if he remembers any of it. To discover what happened to Rachel.
Has Carl truly forgotten what he did or is he just pretending? Perhaps he’s guilty of nothing and she’s the liar. Either way, in driving him into the Texan badlands she’s taking a terrible risk.
For if Carl really is a serial killer, she’s alone in the most dangerous place of all . . .
Julia Heaberlin is my queen of psychological thrillers. Her stories drip with dread while also beating with a strong heart. Paper Ghosts has a such a chilling premise, revenge in extremis. The minute I had this book in my hands, all others were left on the pile, and I hardly ever do that, being the methodical reader that I am.
When Grace was twelve, her nineteen year old sister vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. As the investigation ran cold, Grace’s quest for uncovering the truth just burned hotter. Through Grace, Julia picks apart the devastating effects an unsolved crime can have on a family and the lengths a person might go to in order to achieve a sense of closure. I really loved Grace, despite her recklessness and her low regard for her own life. She was incredibly focused, highly intelligent, and far braver than she gave herself credit for. But her personal investment in the case she was determined to solve was the one thing blocking her from actually solving it. Her pain was raw and I don’t think she went into this road trip with a plan for what was going to happen after, which really weighed on me and broke my heart for her.
Carl is suffering from early onset dementia. In his early sixties, he has been acquitted for murder and is living out the rest of his days in a state nursing home. He remains a person of interest in relation to several missing women, but a lack of evidence determines his ongoing freedom. Formerly a successful photographer, he is no longer trusted with a camera, since it is widely believed since his trial that his photography is linked to his victims. Through Carl, Julia speculates on just how circumstantial court cases can be, and how easy it is to see what we want to see, rather than the truth that is waiting in the wings. She also shows, once again, just how sticky mud is. Once thrown, it’s almost impossible to shake off, and you’re left contemplating just how many people live out their lives bearing weight of another person’s crime.
I’m going to have to ramble in a vague and hopefully enticing fashion for the rest of this review because no one likes a thriller spoiled. Paper Ghosts has a very human side to it and the journey is equally as important as the ending. As Grace and Carl set out on their road trip, you have to wonder where her head is. Deliberately provoking a serial killer in a confined space seems like a death wish. Yet Grace is fearless. And she’s prepared for everything…except for Carl himself. Because he has way about him, a natural wit and devil-may-care attitude that is hard to resist. And it becomes apparent, as the days pass, that the two have formed a bond, as hard as that is to believe. I really enjoyed seeing the relationship unfold – even considering Carl’s status as a supposed serial killer.
“I wish I’d thought to ask Carl for his more industrial flashlight. How weird and dysfunctional is our relationship that I’m certain my sister’s killer would obligingly agree to give me the better flashlight. That, minutes earlier, without a thought, I’d let him drink the last drop out of my water bottle.”
The trip is of course mutually beneficial. Grace feels as though she will get retribution for her sister. Carl gets to escape the nursing home and indulge in a few culinary delights. But somewhere along the way, Carl changes the game, and instead of Grace dictating the rules and laying the trap, he begins to the use the road trip to his own advantage. Carl is a fascinating character. He clearly has dementia, but he’s not so befuddled that he loses his edge. There are many times where I was consumed with dread, unsure on what he was going to do next. He excelled at the cat and mouse routine and was clearly enjoying himself for much of the trip. He’s an excellent example of impeccable characterisation.
“Lying is a delightful thing, for it leads to truth. That’s Dostoyevsky. Lots of shit happens in a barn. That’s pure Carl Feldman.”
There was a heady atmosphere infused throughout the story. Texas appears larger than life, almost like a character itself. And who knew that Texas had such a bloody history? Julia wove these historical incidents of crime into the narrative with style, ramping up the dread, case by case. It was also quite fascinating! Texas is of course an enormous state and this vastness was conveyed along with a sense of lawlessness. Guns were common, and even expected. A tension simmered as intensely as the relentless heat. And when you drive around poking sleeping bears, some of them wake up. In terms of resolution, this novel wraps up especially well. More than one case is solved, but sometimes even resolution fails to bring complete peace and happiness. There’s that reality check that is threaded all the way through each of Julia Heaberlin’s novels. And I love her all the more for it.
Paper Ghosts is an incredible read. It kept me guessing all the way through and reading long into the night. I highly recommend it as one of 2018’s top thrillers.
About the Author:
Julia Heaberlin grew up in Decatur, Texas, a small town that sits under a big sky. It provided a dreamy girl with a great library, a character behind every door, and as many secrets as she’d find anyplace else. An award-winning journalist, she has worked as an editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas Morning News and the Detroit News. Paper Ghosts is her fourth psychological thriller set in Texas. She lives near Dallas/Fort Worth with her husband and has a son who attends the University of Texas at Austin.