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Lost Girls

by Andrew Pyper

Andrew Pyper does for Northern Ontario what Charles Dickens did for the streets of London: he brings the landscape alive, giving it a sense of character and history. On the surface, Lost Girls is about a crime – two young girls disappear, their bodies undiscovered. Thomas Tripp, the local schoolteacher whose life has dealt him a series of irreparable blows, is charged with their murder. Bartholomew Christian Crane is the 33-year-old lawyer with a cocaine problem who travels, albeit reluctantly, from Toronto to cottage country to defend Tripp.

Lost Girls is much more than a crime story, however. With a clear, readable style and a wonderfully dark sense of humour, Pyper creates a narrative in which lives and myth and landscape collide. Personal and community mysteries intersect at every turn.

In the novel’s prologue, set 20 years before the main story, a young girl drowns in a lake as her cousin helplessly looks on. It’s not immediately clear how the drowning relates to the disappearance of the two girls, but it sets a satisfyingly eerie tone that Pyper sustains right to the novel’s chilling end. In between he builds a rich mythology around the lake and its community, including the age-old legend of a drowned gypsy woman who is said to haunt the area still.
Pyper, who previously published a collection of short stories with The Porcupine’s Quill, gives mystery fans the plot turns and surprises they expect, but soars above cliché, making us question our assumptions. Nothing is ever as it seems, and that makes for great suspense. We have to look for the grain of truth in the ravings of the school teacher charged with the murder, in the stories of the local eccentric, and in the ghost story that haunts the narrative. It is madness, addiction, and myth rather than courtroom logic that point to Pyper’s truth.

In the end, the story isn’t really about the murders; they become merely a focal point for a community’s hidden mysteries and nightmares. But here again, like Dickens, the larger context gives Pyper the opportunity to explore characters, morals, and prejudices.