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The Vanishing Season

By Joanna Schaffhausen

Minotaur Books, 274 pages, $32.50

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The late Julian Symons, dean of mystery critics, advised never reviewing first novels since they could be the first and only good novel an author produced or, contrarily, the worst. Let writers work things out and then see what happens in books three or four was his thinking.

That's certainly good advice and one that I tend to think about when I read First Mystery Novel that's won a major prize, such as the Mystery Writers of America, which brings us The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen, whose day job is as a scientific editor submerged in research into cancer, among other diseases. The MWA is usually a good judge of even first novels but it's the plotline that led me to the book. Ellery Hathaway is the only surviving victim of a serial killer named Francis Coben. She was number 17 but she lived. Now, years later, she's a police officer in a small New England town where no one knows her past.

When first one, and then two, more young women disappear and the only link is Ellery's birthday, she knows someone remembers Coben and her. She contacts the only person she trusts, the FBI agent who saved her life years before. But there's more to this story than the return of evil. Schaffhausen builds a fine story of a character who escaped but may not have been saved. This is a most auspicious debut.

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