"The Forgotten Girls" (Putnam), by Owen Laukkanen
The frigid northwest provides a fitting background for "The Forgotten Girls," Owen Laukkanen's sixth chilling police procedural featuring Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere of the joint FBI and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension violent-crimes task force based in Minnesota.
The detectives' assignment to investigate the murder of Ash Southernwood, a runaway, found in a snowdrift by remote railroad tracks in Idaho, soon turns into a manhunt for a serial killer. Someone is following the path of the Northwestern Railroad's High Line train, "the northernmost stretch of long-haul tracks in the country," explains one character. Traveling within 100 miles of Canada through the northern Rocky Mountains, the High Line has become a popular, though dangerous, method of travel for runaways. These "train hoppers" have to weather the open-air cars and ignore rumors of a "ghost rider" who roams the area.
As Kirk and Carla step up their investigation that eventually lands them in Montana, they uncover a pattern of multiple disappearances of runways, transients, prostitutes, indigenous women, even those working late along the High Line's route. "Nobodies," who would be not missed, says one character. But these vulnerable women and teens matter to Kirk and Carla, who also enlist a few compassionate local cops in their search. They also are trying to prevent another runaway, Mila Scott, from becoming a victim. The fearless Mila is determined to avenge Ash and find this mysterious killer.
Hopping a train seems like an old-fashioned idea — with images of hobos crisscrossing the United States during the 1930s. But Laukkanen, whose novels are known for their contemporary crimes, puts a modern spin on this mode of transportation with runaways following a social media network.
The glacial scenery works as an excellent metaphor for society's view of the killer's victims. One can almost feel the whistling wind that blows across the frozen landscapes. More important, Laukkanen delivers a poignant look at each victim, and his brisk pacing gives "The Forgotten Girls" an urgency that never stops.