I absolutely enjoyed Helen C. Escott’s first novel Operation Wormwood [Flanker Press] so when I got my hands on her second novel Operation Vanished [FlankerPress] I dove face and eyes into this rip-roaring, ripsnorting crime thriller.
Whoa ponies! That’s a lie. Operation Vanished is neither “rip-roaring” nor “rip-snorting”. Forgive me, I get a bit carried away sometimes when I try to express my feelings about a book that gave me hours of entertainment.
Deep breath — Operation Vanished is a professionally-written, investigative crime story whose bounty of local colour and its smidgen of…well, fancy, I s’pose, is certain to captivate readers.
That’s not to say there are no spine-tingling moments in the book. For instance, at one-point RCMP Corporal Gail McNaughton is brought to a zero-at-the-bone standstill when she hears a shotgun being racked behind her.
Spoiler alert. Shortly after having the shotgun pointed at her head, Corporal McNaughton is buckled over beside the squad car upchucking her guts.
So, no, she isn’t shot.
Okay, a line or two about the plot.
Corporal McNaughton is the rookie at the St. John’s RCMP detachment. She is assigned a couple of towers of cold-case files, more properly called historical files in McNaughton’s bailiwick.
After sorting through the files, she chooses several to investigate in-depth — a suspected child abduction and three murders. In each instance, the victim is female.
The child is a little girl who disappeared from the berry barrens in 1950. The murdered are three young women whose battered bodies the killer ceremoniously displayed, intending that they be discovered.
Considering the crimes are decades old — sixty-eight years inEllen Clarke’s case — the suspects McNaughton identifies are well into their dotage.
However, some of the people McNaughton speaks with during her investigation suggest the perpetrators are much older than 80 or 90 — hundreds of years older, in fact.
It raises McNaughton’s eyebrows — something like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock’s, I s’pose — when folks allude to the fairies as possible culprits. Fairies! Swopping changelings for humans, and the like.
An aside. Not really though, because the fairy angle is definitely an undercurrent in this book. Sure, listen — years ago, “The fear of fairies was used to police women and children’s behaviours.”
Which brings me to Water Street, Harbour Grace where McNaughton goes to visit the site where Mary Jane Crawford’s body was found back in the 1950s.
Guess what the site is.
A fairy circle.
Yes, a fairy circle. In this case, a ring of giant beech trees enclosing a circular patch of ground, just down around the turn from Rose Manor Inn.
Incidentally, I drove past Rose Manor Inn B&B last week with nary a notion in my noggin that there was a beech-ringed fairy circle beyond the bend. Had I known, I might have tried to find it since my only encounters with fairy circles have been the invasive rings of grey and pasty mushrooms in our front lawn.
Anyway, McNaughton’s visit to the beechwood fairy circle gives her a touch of the yim-yams: “McNaughton felt a shiver down her spine.”
Yet she left the circle thinking, “Fairies are not real.”
B’ys, don’t be too sure, eh?
At Mr. Google’s house I learned this: When Helen Escott visited Harbour Grace in search of said fairy circle, a gentleman she asked regarding the circle’s location wouldn’t tell her because the place is unlucky — “If you find it, get out before it’s dark and don’t dare bring any children near it. You don’t want the fairies to take them.”
Back to the story. Have a glimpse at McNaughton’s human suspects — a doctor, a lawyer, a priest, a local celebrity. Half a century ago, each of these would seem beyond reproach.
But nowadays, forensic science provides McNaughton with DNA evidence that could allow her to confront her prime suspect and say, “Stick ‘em up. You’re under arrest.”
(B’ys, I’ve scribbled this whole thing without once saying, “The Mountie gets her man.” I’m the b’y!)
One last thing. I bet a loonie Helen Escott smiled as she wrote this beauty tip into her tale. Mary Ryan, nigh on to eighty years old delivers the tip after McNaughton compliments the old woman on her beautiful skin: “When I drain a pot of potatoes, I always put my face in over the steam. It opens up all your pores, you know, and keeps you young.”
I don’t know about that, eh b’ys?
Not rip-roaring? Not rip-snorting?
Sure, what odds, Operation Vanished is a display-window, topshelf novel.
Thank you for reading.
Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.