Although this is only Joanna Schaffhausen's first novel, she writes with the seasoned confidence of a veteran crime writer. Tying a serial killer to the present and the past, Schaffhausen focuses on Ellery Hathaway, a damaged yet feisty detective who has made a home for herself in the sleepy of village of Woodbury, Massachusetts. Ellery--the only female officer in the police department--has earned a reputation for being the smartest cop in the room. Ignoring her boss, police chief Sam Parker, Ellie refuses to let go of the investigation into the disappearance of three Woodbury residents: 19-year-old college student Bea Nesbit; mailman Mark Roy; and Shannon Blessing. There have been no bodies and no evidence, or even a suggestion, that a crime ever took place.
Beyond what little is contained in the official files, Ellie has a gut feeling the three were murdered. She pleads with Sam to take a fresh look: "if we can figure out the relationship between the victims, we might be able to stop him from taking another one." Frustrated and sympathetic, Sam refuses to budge. Ellie calls upon her old savior, FBI Agent Reed Markham, the man who rescued her from the cold clutches of infamous Chicago serial killer Francis Michael Coben. Coben gained notoriety for abducting and killing women, but not before cutting off their hands. Initially hesitant to get involved, Reed finally agrees to help after Ellie confesses that she has precious little evidence of any sort of crime, let alone proof of the monster she feels is out there.
On the face of it, The Vanishing Season could be a cliched story, another exploitative novel about a twisted psychopath's desires. What makes the book such a standout is the way Schaffhausen melds Ellie's search for what is perhaps a copycat killer with her own past trapped in Coben's closet. Ellie is probably the only person who can solve the current mystery behind Woodbury's three victims. A series of sinister birthday cards, sent to Ellie each year after each victim went missing, is the only clue. Reed deduces that someone, perhaps from Chicago, has figured out Ellie's secret and is getting a sick thrill out of subtly menacing her. He probably knows that Ellie was once known as Abby Hathaway, the girl abducted off the street on the night of her fourteenth birthday.
Although Ellie's survival of Coben's reign of terror gives the novel its grisly backstory, her reconnection with Reed creates a complete picture of everyone involved in the current investigation. Life can be messy and complicated, especially when you still bear the physical and emotional scars of a killer like Francis Michael Coben. While Ellie fights a rising sense of frustration that Sam thinks she's a "conspiracy theory nutcase," Reed is plagued by a dozen different memories: the oppressive Chicago heat; the photos of mutilated young women missing their hands; the awful stench when he pried open the closer door and saw the full horror of Coben's work.
Reed must sink into Ellie's current case. He's frustrated by the realities of small-town policing and Ellie's efforts to open a missing-persons investigation when no one is interested in actively investigating them. He and Ellie are convinced the cases are connected even though Coben is securely incarcerated. Perhaps it's the work of one individual, abducting people during the first two weeks of July, some "sicko" keeping Bea Nesbit "on ice," just waiting for his opportunity to come along. Ignoring the warning from Sam not to stir the Nesbit family up with some "cracked-up story about a serial murderer," Reed and Ellie begin to connect Bea's disappearance to Mark and Shannon's. Amid the gift-wrapped severed hands delivered to a neighbor's doorstep and Ellie's fear of the night creatures that chatter on the treetops outside her house, Ellie is heroine in peril, worried that she is once again Coben's target.
Ellie's mind is a constant whirl of images: the severed hands, Bea and Shannon seen together at a local gas station all those years ago, and the hard set of Sam's mouth when he'd laid out her marching orders. Reed faces a choice as he attempts to retrace Coben's murky past and his connection to a new type of killer, a monstrous figure plaguing Woodbury who seems to have adopted a supervillain's name and mantra. Ellie doesn't really believe in curses, but she has seen tragedy beget tragedy enough times to know it isn't simply a matter of bad luck, either. Ellie lives within Reed, too; she's changed and shaped him in a way that is both ineffable and unalterable.
As a summer storm reaches its climax over Woodbury, "pounding the earth like a prizefighter," Schaffhausen reveals her killer, although readers will probably figure it out long before Reed and Ellie do. This is not a heart-pounding thriller but a dark, plodding one with a prevailing sense of horror that cements Reed and Ellie's singular relationship, two damaged souls linked together forever.