Heaberlin begins the tale with a shocker: Rachel, the narrator’s sister, falls into an open grave. The girl, 12, climbs out unharmed, but the scene is a predictor of future tragedy. Seven years later, Rachel goes missing for real.
After more than a decade of searching, the obsessed narrator — whose name we don’t learn until the end of the book — has found the man she thinks took Rachel. Finding him was no small feat: It took “dozens of interviews. Hundreds of suspects. Thousands of documents,” she explains. “Reading, stalking, stealing. It’s been a singular, no-holds-barred obsession since I was twelve and my sister’s bike didn’t make it the three miles in broad daylight from our house to her summer babysitting job.”
The narrator’s search reaches this point after she finds a photo of two young girls in the house where she and her sister grew up. Our intrepid sleuth connects the photo to a published book of photographs taken by a man named Carl Louis Feldman, who was found not guilty of killing another girl. He’s also been a person of interest in the disappearances of other young women whose photos he took. The narrator tracks Feldman to a halfway house where he is allegedly living in the fog of dementia. She can’t figure him out. “Some days I think I’m just messing with an eccentric and mortally sick old man. Some days, I think he is messing with me.”
Are his comments cryptic messages or evidence of an unraveling mind? “I don’t know if I killed anyone,” Carl tells her, “but I’ve always considered every picture I take to be a little murder. My Hasselblad sounded like a gunshot when I fired it. A solid, good sound. That, and it’s inevitable that my subjects will be dead someday when someone looks at their pictures.”
Our narrator proposes a 10-day road trip. She and the surprisingly likable Feldman travel to three places where women he photographed went missing. If she can get him to admit he killed these women, maybe he’ll also admit to killing her sister, the narrator hopes.
If you can buy into the premise that the narrator is so desperate to solve her sister’s disappearance that she puts her own life in danger by hitting the road with a suspected killer, you’ll enjoy the journey and all its macabre side trips. You’ll love the travel commentary written in Heaberlin’s lean, muscular prose: “The moon is a giant orange ball playing hide-and-seek with a bank of night clouds. Soothing, if driving this pitch-black country road didn’t feel like being buried alive, if the tires weren’t moaning against the asphalt, if I didn’t think there was a serial killer sleeping beside me.”
Their primary destinations are Waco, Calvert and Galveston, where three missing women were last seen. There are overnight stays in seedy motels and a side trip to a veterinarian to get help for a gut-shot dog they pick up along the way. Because their macabre journey first takes them to Waco, it’s fitting they visit the scene of the deadly 1993 standoff at the Branch Davidians’ compound.
Heaberlin, whose previous books include “Black-Eyed Susans” and “Lie Still,” writes in the book’s acknowledgments that all her books are an ode to Texas. “Paper Ghosts” zigs and zags through its roughly 268,000 square miles as Austin, Marfa and the Pine Curtain of East Texas are added to the itinerary. They, too, are lovingly celebrated for their quirks and unusual sensibilities.
The paper ghosts in Feldman’s photos haunt this journey but are sometimes no match for the narrator’s spooky ruminations: “I imagine how it would feel to stop the truck, pull my gun out of the console, and shoot him in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. I’d watch his blood land like black raindrops on the dark leather. It could be the most satisfying second of my life — the price maybe being every single second afterward.”
Every journey reaches its end, and the one in “Paper Ghosts” comes on fast and furious. Signposts along the way warn of angst, secrets and deadly plot twists, but you’ll never see what’s coming. You’ll step out of this fictional vehicle feeling like you’ve been T-boned by an 18-wheeler.
Carol Memmott is a writer based in Northern Virginia.
By Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine. 342 pp. $26