Review: The Forgotten Girls

A big part of the fun of reading for me is planning what I want to read next. Early this year, I was planning a mini book haul; I ended up with 4 novels, but I looked through hundreds of titles to get a good idea of what’s out there, and ended up with a second list of books to hunt down at the library. It’s one of these books that I want to tell you about today: Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls.

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Written in Denmark, this book is actually not the first in its series, but was the first to be published in English, and therefore stands as the beginning. It works as a stand-alone book, but I did feel while I was reading that some of the characters probably had a lot more depth and background than what I was seeing in this one volume. I believe a second book is now available in English in this series, which I hope will share a little more detail about the main characters and their pasts. But for now, let’s discuss The Forgotten Girls.

About this book: Louise Rick, the lead detective of a new Missing Persons department, takes the case of an unidentified woman found in the woods and unearths some strange information about her previous whereabouts. The woman and her twin were supposedly abandoned at a young age at a facility for children with mental disorders, but their death certificates were filed decades ago and no one seems to be able to remember what happened. Meanwhile, more women are being brutally attacked around the area, and one is missing. There are no witnesses. There are barely any suspects. And Louise grew up in this area, leaving after a personal tragedy she still can’t seem to escape. Can any of these people she’s known for years be a vicious murderer? And what’s up with her new partner, Eik?

“What do we know about this woman?” Louise asked as she put on a lab coat and hairnet. “So far, not much, except that it was a forest worker who found her on Thursday morning by Avnso Lake on mid-Zealand,” Flemming answered, handing her a green surgical mask. “According to the coroner’s examination, she died sometime between Wednesday and early Thursday morning. The police think she fell or slipped maybe fifteen feet down a steep slope and landed badly…I decided to upgrade the autopsy so we’ll get the DNA.” Louise nodded in agreement. DNA and dental records were always the first steps toward an identification. It would have been nice if Eik Nordstrom had bothered to show up, she thought, so one of them could follow up with the dentist right away. “I can say almost for sure that this is no ordinary woman we’re dealing with,” Flemming went on, explaining that this was clear from both the clothes she had been wearing before they began and the condition of the body. “Or at least it’s not a woman who has lived an ordinary life,” he corrected.

The biggest draw for me initially in this story was the creepiness of the mystery. There’s a spooky forest hiding something evil, an old asylum full of secrets, people who are not what they seemed, danger, adventure, deception, conspiracy, a haunted past, and all those good murder mystery elements. I appreciated the concept, but it didn’t feel as suspenseful as I was expecting. I understood that Louise was worried about things, but I had some difficulty feeling that tension connect me to her character. There were a few moments near the end that were intense, but generally Louise seemed a bit out of reach. I didn’t have any doubts that the case would be solved, but it didn’t seem to matter much for her either way–she would’ve been upset at the lack of closure, but her life would not significantly change. I didn’t want her to fail, and I did want to discover what had happened to all the attacked women, but I wasn’t anxious with anticipation because of a character’s personal investment or the constant presence of danger, the elements that usually bring detective stories alive for me. This was a subdued mystery, where I usually prefer drama. That’s not to say this is a poor story–but definitely subtle.

The thing that inexplicably stuck with me about this book was an abrupt transition that proved there was more happening between the lines. To explain it, I need to tell you a little about the romance situation in this book. The Forgotten Girls starts with one of those typical strong-female-lead-who’s-really-underimpressed-by-the-male-lead-who-makes-a-terrible-first-impression kind of scenarios where you just know they’re going to grow surprisingly close and fall in love. That’s how it starts, but luckily it’s not actually so predictable. There’s not much love going on, and barely even any attraction, which is nice–it’s great to read about a female lead who doesn’t need to get the man to have her happy ending. But there is some attraction here. Enough to keep things interesting in the unlikely partnership that Louise and Eik are forced into. The biggest attraction between them seems to stem from an appreciation for skill and persistence with the job. And thus my shock at this abrupt transition–one minute Louise is thinking about the case, and then the following paragraph begins the next morning with a brief recap of the biggest romantic advancement of the book, which then goes virtually unacknowledged for the remainder of the story! I literally did a double take, which, for the record, can be extremely awkward when you’re reading in public. The casual mention of Louise’s physical involvement with someone she’d hardly seemed to notice was both surprising and unexpected, and gave the impression that the narration was hiding some important thoughts. The story became much more interesting for me as I tried to cipher out more of what was happening behind the scenes. This is essentially what led to my interest in another book in the series–clearly there’s more to Louise’s past than she’s willing to admit here, and I sincerely hope that the next book of this series will delve into that aspect of her character.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I didn’t feel that creepy urge to crawl out of my skin that I was hoping for when I picked up this murder mystery, but I think it is worth noting that I’m interested enough in the characters to add the second book, The Killing Forest, to my to-read list. I think this story is one I’ll grow to like more as I learn more about the characters, but I do wish it had seemed stronger on its own.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels is set in New York, circa the 1800s, and features some of the asylum and strange death elements that I was looking for in The Forgotten Girls. A unique plot web ties the characters together as they fight for their lives and the prosperity of their Coney Island sideshow. See my review of this novel here.
  2. The Shining, by Stephen King, would be a great read if you like creepy stories about old semi-abandoned places and seemingly-normal families faced with nearly unimaginable challenges. There’s no detective element here, but the “enemy” is eerily close to home, as in The Forgotten Girls, and in both cases the characters live in fear of something–or someone–they can hardly put a name to. As with most King novels, there’s some involvement of the supernatural in The Shining that is not at all present in The Forgotten Girls, but both share an inexplicable hint of something beyond the norm working in mysterious and evil ways–they just have different explanations in the two books, with varying degrees of scientific rationale.

What’s next: I’m heading back to historical fiction to bring you a new installment in my Outlander series reviews. I’ll be talking about Diana Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross next, which is the fifth book in the series. Stay tuned for my latest thoughts on the exciting (and sometimes tragic) lives of the Fraser family!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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