Chevy Stevens's new graphic thriller "Still Missing," about a kidnapped woman
By Chevy Stevens
St. Martin's. 342 pp. $24.99
Chevy Stevens's "Still Missing" is a sometimes lurid, mostly readable novel that will probably make a great deal of money. Her publisher thinks so, and ordered a first printing of 150,000, exceptional for a first novel. There is a good reason for the publisher's optimism: The book's ripped-from-the-headlines subject -- a young woman's abduction, long captivity and repeated rape -- is blatantly commercial. The irony is that the story becomes more interesting after she escapes.
The captive woman is hardly a new subject in fiction. In William Faulkner's 1931 novel, "Sanctuary," a Mississippi coed is seized by a creep called Popeye and subjected to one of the most bizarre rapes in literary history. Countless variations on the theme followed. James Patterson weighed in a few years ago with a nasty little number called "Kiss the Girls," in which yet another nutcase kidnapped coeds. Patterson even managed to outdo Faulkner in the grotesque rape category, but I won't ruin your morning with specifics.
As a novelist, Chevy Stevens is closer to Patterson than to Faulkner, but her book is not without interest. Her heroine, Annie O'Sullivan, is a petite, single, potty-mouthed, 32-year-old real estate agent on Vancouver Island. One Sunday, when she's showing a house, a man overpowers her and takes her to the isolated mountaintop cabin where she will remain his prisoner for a year.
Her captor (whom she privately calls The Freak) imposes various demeaning rules she must follow -- including specific times when she can use the toilet -- to avoid being beaten or denied food. He demands sex, of course, which she loathes but endures: "He was pretty basic in the sex department," she says. "I did whatever it took to get it over with fast and I got damn good at it." To keep her captor happy, she talks about her childhood and reads to him.
Although she hates him, at some point the Stockholm syndrome kicks in, and she admits finding him "interesting and articulate." She adds, "How could I ever tell anyone he made me laugh?"
At times, Stevens almost seems to be giving us a sardonic portrait of how some women are said to feel about their marriages: "Well, the sex is awful and he's a control freak and a jerk -- but sometimes he's kinda sweet." Still, when Annie sees a chance to escape, she takes it. We know this from the outset because Annie's story is told through her sessions with the psychiatrist who is helping her recover from the ordeal.
Early in the novel, I wondered if its intended audience was mostly men, because, let's face it, men are more likely to rush out and buy a rape fantasy than women.
But soon the sex is played down, and the novel becomes the story of a woman trying to overcome extreme trauma. She no sooner escapes The Freak than she finds herself in the clutches of police, doctors and psychiatrists. When the shrinks are debating whether she's sane enough to go home, she realizes, "I didn't have any more freedom than I'd had on the mountain." Even when she's home, she must deal with her hard-drinking, troublesome mother and the rest of her dysfunctional family, as well as with her unhappy dog, her clueless boyfriend and a BFF who wants to help but won't shut up.
Stevens tries hard to involve us in Annie's suffering; the problem is that although we sympathize with Annie, she's not a very interesting person. The strength of the novel lies not in its characters or insights but in a shrewdly calculated, suspenseful plot that uncorks one surprise after another. In time, Annie even suspects that The Freak didn't kidnap her at random but may have been acting on behalf of someone close to her. The story's ending is admirably dark.
My main objection to the novel is its gratuitous profanity. I am far from a prude (ask anyone), but even in this world of dirty talk I think there are words we'd rather not have to wallow in when we're curled up at home with a book. Alas, Stevens just can't get enough of one four-letter-world beginning with "s" and another beginning with "f." Weary of this onslaught, at page 259 I started circling those words and found that Stevens used the s-word 35 times and the f-word 28 times before the book ended 81 pages later. Is this deluge supposed to make us think Annie is hip or cool or sophisticated? Do Stevens and her editors think this stuff (a synonym they should have considered) sells books? Not to me.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.