“You’re out there on your own playing guessing games with a smart, highly unpredictable man. When you hit just the right spot, there will be no guards to rush in and remove his hands from your throat. And when he hits your raw spots — and he will — are you ready for it?”
That is one of the arguments presented to the unnamed young narrator of “Paper Ghosts,” the newest novel of suspense from Julia Heaberlin. It also echoes the tense premise fashioned by the author of the best-selling “Black-Eyed Susans.” The paper ghosts of the title are the fading photographs of an aging photographer, possibly in the throes of dementia and possibly a serial killer of young women.
Carl Louis Feldman is “freed” from the halfway house he currently resides in by an unnamed and completely unreliable narrator in search of answers to her sister Rachel’s death more than a decade earlier.
Research on the internet and on the dark web has convinced the 24-year-old woman that Carl — who “specializes in timeless” and wears around his neck the same tiny key charm seen on one of the young girls he has photographed — is the acquitted serial killer in question.
Now all the narrator has to do is drive Carl around Texas to the three sites she has mapped out, three sites associated with the photographs in his “Time Travel” book of surreal images, hoping that seeing the sites of the cold-case crimes will get her passenger to admit to the murders she suspects him of committing.
It’s a killer of a plot (sorry for that), and one that Heaberlin comes close to making work. For Heaberlin is adept at capturing the diverse Texas landscape and the equally diverse Texas culture.
The author re-creates real places with the same care and accuracy that she employs to create her fictional ones. She moves from Waco to Houston to Austin to Galveston. She recreates the Mystery Lights of “the existential desert town of Marfa” with the same attention she uses to detail an unattended cabin in the Pine Curtain.
Carl and his young driver have their share of comic and increasingly terrifying adventures along the way as well, he plagued — maybe — with dementia, she, with desperation and lies … she worrying that memory is fading, he equally worried — maybe — that memory has already done so. It’s a brilliant conceit for a thriller.
But the machinations of the conceit’s plot sometimes seem forced. The narrator identifies herself as Carl’s daughter and is immediately allowed to embark on that road trip. A renowned doctor at a large hospital discusses Carl’s possible dementia more freely than the law and her reasons for doing so might allow. A new-age veterinarian is conveniently near enough to nurse back to health Barfly, Carl’s rescue dog, and new-agey enough not to charge her usual fee for doing so. There always seem to be enough funds (and stolen credit cards) for food and lodging. All this conveniently moves the plot forward and, in doing so, it all seems a bit too pat.
When it works, though, “Paper Ghosts” is often breathtaking. The section on the Mystery Lights of Marfa is beautifully rendered. The Pine Curtain section is absolutely terrifying.
Things seem to be tied up far too quickly and neatly in the novel’s “Epilogue,” but on the way to that epilogue, “Paper Ghosts” is often haunting and consistently gripping.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.