Ellery Hathaway #1: The Vanishing Season – Joanna Schaffhausen

I’ve done it! I’ve finally done it!! I’ve found an author whose writing is worthy of being compared to Tess Gerritsen in a sentence like “I’ve finally found an author as good as Tess” or “This book had everything I love about Tess books and more, and it’s not even written by Tess!”

Friends, please allow me to introduce you (if you haven’t already discovered her) to Joanna Schaffhausen. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call it early … remember this name because Joanna’s ability to immerse you in her character’s world has bestseller written all over it. I feel as though nothing I say here can possibly do justice to her debut but I’ll give it a shot and encourage you to read it yourself so we can gush together about how much we loved it.

Ellery Hathaway is the sole survivor of infamous serial killer Francis Michael Coben. Saved by Agent Reed Markham before she became Coben’s seventeenth murder victim, Ellery now works as a police officer in a quiet town where no one knows who she really is. She is the only one who believes there’s a link between three seemingly unconnected disappearances in three years in her town, which all occurred around her birthday, the day she was abducted fourteen years ago. Ellery’s next birthday is approaching and she calls Reed, knowing he is the only one who will believe her.

I wanted to both rush through The Vanishing Season and read as slowly as possible to draw the experience of the first read out for as long as possible. I became immersed by about paragraph 3 and each time I came back to where I’d left the story I got sucked straight back in. I wound up so engaged that I didn’t realise I’d said, not thought, “I knew it!” until one of the people that had been respectfully honouring my ‘don’t you dare interrupt me until I finish my book or there will be dire consequences’ look came from the other side of the house to find out what my outburst was about. Oops!

I know a book has its hooks in me when I start repeating a phrase to myself while reading, as if the number of times I repeat it can magically increase the likelihood of my being able to influence the outcome. Yes, in my mind I wield that much power! In this case I had two magical phrases:

  1. Please don’t let Bump die!”
  2. “Let the killer be anyone but 🤚.” (And, no, I’m not telling you who the hand represents but it seemed an appropriate substitute given the content of the book.)

I adored Bump. The loyal and trustworthy male in Ellery’s life, Bump is a basset hound who loves walks and rides in the car, liberally distributing slobber over humans he likes and dreams of the day when someone will accidentally drop a piece of chocolate in his vicinity. Also, the story surrounding the choice of his name is wonderful and dog owners everywhere will relate and wonder why they didn’t think of naming their dog Bump.

I loved the people characters as well. No one was perfect. All of the major players had pasts which influenced the way they thought and acted in the situation they found themselves in. There were questionable ethics and life choices, secrets galore and issues surrounding trust were hiding beneath the surface, and shame and guilt were both explored.

I really enjoyed Ellery and Brady’s banter. Their friendship felt comfortable and their bond over 80’s music and quips about what they disagreed on made me feel like I was being included. I almost wanted to add my own opinion a couple of times. I’m looking forward to reading Ellery and Reed banter in future books. There were hints of it here but good banter takes time to develop in a friendship so I’m thankful it didn’t happen immediately.

Coben gave me a what a fantastic yet disgusting and interesting in a disturbing way vibe that was similar to the way I felt when reading about Hannibal Lecter. Which brings me to the gore. It was gruesome enough to satisfy the disturbed side of me that watches B grade movies in part to cheer when the gigantic shark leaps out of the water and takes down a plane, yet it wasn’t so focused on the brutality of the murders that it detracted from the interactions between characters and the mystery of who was behind the murders and why.

Content warnings include domestic violence and sexual assault.

The references to sexual assault are not gratuitous by any means but I felt the character directly affected was so realistic that if this has been your experience you are likely to see parts of your own response mirrored back at you (which incidentally I applaud because life after sexual assault is rarely written well). I wasn’t personally triggered while reading, instead feeling hopeful when I encountered ‘me, too’ moments.

I’m always interested, when someone is rescued after being kidnapped or otherwise traumatised, in what happens next. What becomes of the survivor? What does their life look like now compared to what it looked like prior to whatever happened to them? How do they cope? Do they think they’re a victim or a survivor? So many books that explore the effects of sexual assault portray the person who experiences it as either a victim hiding from the world in a corner or someone who’s taking on the world and has no residual physical or psychological impacts in their life.

The character in The Vanishing Season who’s been sexually assaulted was irrevocably changed by their experiences and is a wonderful mix of strength and vulnerability. They’ve overcome so much but there are still physical reminders on their body and in their home that speak to the pain they carry with them. They’re at a point in their life where they’ve worked so hard to no longer be the victim yet they still feel the need to hide. I loved the dichotomies and the implication that healing from sexual assault isn’t a one size fits all process.

If I were to nitpick I’d tell you that I wanted more details of the Big Bad’s background. It’s not as though we don’t know some pivotal moments in their life that help set their particular brand of crazy in motion and we’re given access to the twisted way they think, but I wanted more. To be fair, I have an obsession interest in what causes people with similar genetic and environmental factors to take drastically different paths in life, so my need to know more says more about me than it does about this book. I was also left wanting to know what happens to Anna after the book finished.

And now for your chance to laugh at and with me, I’ll tell you my favourite How Stupid Am I moment I encountered while reading. Initially when I read the town’s name I got Woodbury confused with Woodsboro and for a while I was thinking of how funny it would be if there was a cameo of some random person in a Scream mask running through a scene. 🤪

I love debut novels but I often wind up disappointed by a feeling of knowing how good a book could have been if only that brilliant idea had the execution you usually only expect with experience. Joanna’s debut had the excitement of a first time author’s passion but was written with the character development, story arc, backstories, delightful twists and sucked into a reading black hole ability I only expect of the greats once they’ve found their feet. There were some sentences where the imagery made it feel like I was reading poetry.

I don’t even know Joanna yet I feel proud of her for writing such an impressive debut. If this is what she can accomplish with a first novel I can only imagine how much fun it’s going to be to read her future novels. If anyone has any spare stars I’d love to borrow some because ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ aren’t enough.

Thank you to NetGalley, Minotaur Books and St. Martin’s Press for ✨ granting my wish ✨ and giving me this opportunity to read this book. I don’t know if I can wait for the next Ellery/Reed/Bump book to be released. I’ve found a new author whose books will be added to my to be read list sight unseen.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Ellery Hathaway knows a thing or two about serial killers, but not through her police training. She’s an officer in sleepy Woodbury, MA, where a bicycle theft still makes the newspapers. No one there knows she was once victim number seventeen in the grisly story of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only victim who lived. 

When three people disappear from her town in three years, all around her birthday – the day she was kidnapped so long ago – Ellery fears someone knows her secret. Someone very dangerous. Her superiors dismiss her concerns, but Ellery knows the vanishing season is coming and anyone could be next. She contacts the one man she knows will believe her: the FBI agent who saved her from a killer’s closet all those years ago.

Agent Reed Markham made his name and fame on the back of the Coben case, but his fortunes have since turned. His marriage is in shambles, his bosses think he’s washed up, and worst of all, he blew a major investigation. When Ellery calls him, he can’t help but wonder: sure, he rescued her, but was she ever truly saved? His greatest triumph is Ellery’s waking nightmare, and now both of them are about to be sucked into the past, back to the case that made them … with a killer who can’t let go.

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