No-one will ever accuse Jo Spain of being unadventurous. With a best-selling series of police procedurals under her belt – the superb Tom Reynolds novels – a lesser writer might hunker down and play safety first by sticking to the familiar. But that’s not Jo Spain. Her last standalone thriller, The Perfect Lie (click for review), was set in Newport, Rhode Island, and now she takes us to the ski resort of Koppe in icy Finland, where Brit Alex Evans has travelled to identify the murdered body of his sister, Vicky. She was something of a ‘free spirit’, having wandered half the way round Europe doing a variety of temporary jobs (including pole dancing in a Spanish bar), always broke, but always looking for the next big adventure. Her body has been found by an ice fisherman, and has been in the water for some time.
Handling the investigation is local police chief Agatha Koskinen, but Alex is determined to ask his own questions. He discovers that Vicky had been working at a local hotel and had made friends with an American tourist who is now back in the states, but has an alibi for the time when Vicky disappeared. Agatha has demons of her own to contend with, however, as somewhere out there is the abusive parent of her three children – Luca – and she fears for them should Luca come back into their lives.
As ever, Jo Spain weaves a complex mystery, and gives us a split time narrative. She takes us back to 1998 where we are a fly on the wall in the house of Miika and Kaya Vartinen. Miika is a Sami – one the ethnic people of what used to be known as Lapland. He is a reindeer herder. Kaya is pregnant, but Miika is not the father. She is carefully managing the usual symptoms so that when she tells him, Miika will believe the child is his.
The significance of the book’s title becomes clear when Alex visits Agatha at her home, and she reveals that Vicky is the latest woman to disappear in a ten-year period, and that Kaya Vatinen was the first. She also tells Alex that Miika Vartinen is widely suspected as being involved in the disappearances, but no evidence has ever emerged to connect him to the cases.
With the most delicate of touches, Jo Spain hints at the darker aspects of life in Koppe, where there is an undercurrent of racism towards the Sami people, and she reminds us of the familiar theme of movers and shakers in tourist resorts – think the Mayor of Amity Island in Jaws – not wanting anything to disturb the inward flow of visitors and their cash. There is also the spectre of an international mining company sensing a million dollar windfall from the minerals sitting beneath the pristine and picturesque Finnish landscape.
Jo Spain’s tricksy thrillers are very cleverly written. She relies on us making assumptions. She invites us to make these assumptions rather like a fly fisherman casting the cunningly constructed fly on the water, hoping it will fool the fat trout (aka the reader). When we realise we have been gulled, we might turn back a few ages and react with something like, “hang on – didn’t she tell us that …?“, only to find that what she wrote was perfectly ambiguous, and that we have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps there’s a few too many mixed metaphors there, but I hope you get my drift.
There are only two predictable things about a Jo Spain thriller. The first? There will be a dramatic plot twist. The second? You won’t see it coming! The Last to Disappear is published by Quercus, and will be out on 12th May. For more of my reviews of Jo’s books, click the image below.