Books: A thoughtful approach in ‘Return of Ellie Black’; a special kind of suspense in ‘Pitch Dark’

‘The Return of Ellie Black’ by Emiko Jean. Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $28.99

Emiko Jean’s second adult novel appears, at first, to follow a standard police procedural centered on the investigation of a missing teenager, another common plot trope. But quickly “The Return of Ellie Black” evolves into an insightful look at parenting issues, grief, racism and the consequences of choices on the present and the future.

The rescue of teenager Elizabeth “Ellie” Black, found running in a Washington State forest by two hikers, jumpstarts the plot. The disheveled and disoriented Ellie has been missing for more than two years, having been kidnapped from a motel parking lot in her hometown of Coldwell Beach, about two hours away from where she is found by the father-and-son hikers.

Jean’s main focus is Chelsey Calhoun, whose first case as a Coldwell police detective after 10 years on the force, was Ellie’s disappearance. The case is both professionally and personally important to Chelsey — the chance to prove herself to her colleagues and to her police chief father who was still living when the investigation began.

Personally, Chelsey’s need to find Ellie, and now solve the case, is a way of seeking justice for her older sister, Lydia, who was murdered about 20 years before. Chelsey and Lydia doted on each other; their relationship made Chelsey feel as if she “belonged.” Lydia protected Chelsey when she was young from other children who bullied Chelsey because she is of Japanese heritage and adopted. As a detective, Chelsey deals with the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant racism of being the only Asian in her area.

"The Return of Ellie Black" by Emiko Jean. (Simon & Schuster/Courtesy),
“The Return of Ellie Black” by Emiko Jean. (Simon & Schuster/Courtesy)

This case and Lydia’s death, as well as caring for her ill-tempered father while he was dying of cancer, have left Chelsey with a fear of letting go. She can’t clear out her childhood house so she and her husband of six months, Noah, can establish their own home. Chelsey knows “it’s now just ‘the house.’ A lonely, lost place, stuck somewhere between here and gone. It strikes her slightly numb.”

Chelsey plunges into the renewed investigation, even though Ellie won’t cooperate. A pattern of other missing young women and teenagers emerges as Chelsey shows her skills at following evidence, no matter how obscure. Chelsey “had perfected the art of observation during her childhood, carefully watching her father’s moods.” Jean also explores the inequities of crime detection, how victims can be treated differently depending on economic and racial backgrounds.

“The Return of Ellie Black” seamlessly alternates between Ellie’s captivity to being back with her parents to Chelsey’s investigation. Both women will confront “the paths we carve on our own.” The past, Chelsey muses, “is unchangeable. But the future is uncertain.” Both women will learn if they are ready for the future.

Jean brings to “The Return of Ellie Black” the same thoughtful approach to characters as she did to her bestselling young adult fiction, one of which was part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club selections.

Paul Doiron is author of "Pitch Dark." (Kristen Lindquist/Courtesy)
Paul Doiron is author of “Pitch Dark.” (Kristen Lindquist/Courtesy)

Nature vs. people’s motives

‘Pitch Dark’ by Paul Doiron. Minotaur, 304 pages, $29

Mysteries set in the outdoors bring their own challenges for tension. The danger that haunts city streets certainly is frightening, but the yin and yang of people against nature often can seem insurmountable, creating a special kind of suspense, lurking around the bend. The vast outdoors also deliver a kind of locked-room suspense with no buildings in which to hide, little access to vehicles to whisk one away.

Paul Doiron’s evocative novels about Maine Warden Service investigator Mike Bowditch deftly show the beauty and harshness of nature that no person can ever completely conquer.

“Pitch Dark” finds Mike worried that Stacey, his wife of six months, may be pregnant. The couple have known each other for years and have talked about having children. But Mike continues to worry that he may not be ready to be a parent, that he may pass down the emotional scars his biological father inflicted — wounds he is still discovering 10 years after his father died. But Mike also knows his strong relationship with Stacey’s father provided the kind of role model he needed.

"Pitch Dark" by Paul Doiron. (Minotaur Books/Courtesy)
“Pitch Dark” by Paul Doiron. (Minotaur Books/Courtesy)

Mike is also worried about another father. Mark Redmond, a builder from Alaska, is living deep in the forest with his 12-year-old daughter, Cady, while he builds a cabin for well-known bush pilot Josie Jonson. Mike is worried about the child who is left alone for days and appears to have self-inflicted scars. Mike’s concern ramps up when a stranger is trying to find the pair. When Mike meets up with the pair, Mark seems unconcerned, leaving a couple days later with Cady. Mike follows into Maine’s North Woods, then into Canada.

“Pitch Dark,” the 15th novel in his series, continues Doiron’s high standards of showcasing nature in contrast to the motives of people. Mike’s skills and personality have grown, as Doiron shows a new side to his character in each novel. Mike may wonder if he is ready to be a father, but readers know he is.

Doiron’s series about Mike and the Maine environment and C.J. Box’s books about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett are superb novels about those who are helping protect our land.