“You’re an odd little duck. Emphasis on little. And odd. I wonder why you don’t seem worried that I’m going to kill you, too.” An old man with dementia could be a serial killer, but he doesn’t remember. A young woman in her 20’s is convinced he killed her sister when they were younger. The two head out on a morbid road trip, but will they both survive?
Paper Ghosts was released last year and is written by Julia Heaberlin. I picked it up on a whim at a library book sale and thought it would be a mildly interesting mystery thriller. Boy, was I wrong. What this is instead is a twisted tale of two mentally ill people struggling to come to terms with the truth.
Carl is an old man with dementia. He lives in a rundown halfway house. He was tried for the murder of a young woman, Nicole, but got off free. He slowly started losing control of his mind and now lives in a house filled with people like him. Criminals with some form of dementia.
Grace is a young woman whose sister disappeared one day and was never found. She’s spent her life trying to find Rachel and find her killer. She believes she’s narrowed it down to Carl and so she lies and says she’s his daughter. She begins to visit him at the home and when he’s not around, she looks through his belongings trying to find a trace of the killer within him.
Carl was a famous photographer and when Grace was little, she found one of his photos hidden in her house. It couldn’t be a coincidence, and it leads her to believe that Carl had been watching her and Rachel for a long time.
The story is complicated, and hard to lay it all out. It has so many incredible pieces that somehow all fit together and blow your mind. Basically, Grace convinces Carl to come on a road trip with her. But the road trip has three spots, three areas where young women went missing. Women, Grace believes, were murdered by Carl. She’s hoping it will jog his memory and he’ll remember killing them, and hopefully in turn, remember killing her sister Rachel.
It’s a fascinating cat and mouse chase in a way, except the cat and the mouse are in the same car. Grace is constantly on edge trying to keep one step ahead of Carl. Even though he has dementia, he’s incredibly bright and cruel. Carl somehow always manages to be one step ahead of Grace no matter how hard she tries.
And as they stop at each murder location, you as the reader become less and less convinced that Carl is a killer. He just seems like an old man who is having a good time driving around Texas and getting to see the sights. You actually start to become a little convinced that maybe Grace is the crazy one.
She talks a lot about a trainer she found. Someone on the dark web she hired to train her for any situation. “For the last year, I’ve upped my game. I’ve paid someone to scare me to death. To be suspended in air, blindfolded, and dropped, not knowing if the next seconds would bring the lash of glacial water, the taut rejection of a trampoline, a desperate tumble down an endless hall. I’ve been tied up in a closet until I lost track of time, slammed into the ground in a parking garage, tailed by a Mercedes at one hundred miles an hour.”
Grace is trained to survive any sort of situation that involves a killer. She would be the perfect final girl. Except that in the real life scenarios, she keeps forgetting little things and finding herself in complicated situations. And you have to wonder how much trauma this kind of training does to an individual. It actually reminds me a lot of the latest Halloween flick with Lori.
Clearly Grace is a damaged woman. The void left behind by her sister and the unknown aspect of it, drove Grace to paranoia. She has spent her entire life obsessing over this disappearance and in turn obsessing over other women’s cases. She has never truly lived her life. It’s an honest look at what’s left behind when someone goes missing. Grace struggles to maintain relationships, she barely speaks to her family. And she has a confusing relationship with a man named Andy who worked on her sister’s case. But now she has Carl. And somehow throughout all of this madness, she forms an unlikely bond with Carl.
When Carl goes missing, she looks for him, not only because she needs him to find out the truth, but also because deep down she has learned to care for him.
Carl is a fascinating subject. Sure, he lets people believe his dementia is worse than it is, but he does have dementia. He can see two people who aren’t really there. One being Walt, and the second being a woman. He’s having clear hallucinations. But he’s also bright enough to know what Grace is up to, and he has a lot of fun playing with her. Even at the beginning of the journey, he torments her by leaving a scarf in her suitcase from a young woman that visits the home. Grace assumes the worst - Carl has killed this young woman. When in reality, Carl just stole the scarf and left it for Grace to panic over.
He clearly gets joy out of making people uncomfortable and playing with them. And so as you read through, and start to doubt Carl is a killer, he has these moments where you think….but only a killer would act like that.
It weaves such an interesting tale where you question yourself and the characters. There is no trustworthy narrator here.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING
The ending though, is so satisfactory. And it leaves you with a bit of a drop in your stomach when you realize who really killed Rachel. Because Grace has spent her whole life searching and the killer was there in front of her.
And I love the irony that it’s Carl that leads Grace to Rachel and her killer. And while this is a satisfying ending, everything has pretty much wrapped up but you’re still thinking about Carl. Which is why I love the very ending. In the epilogue Carl passes away and leaves Grace his cabin in the woods, and a small plastic bag with Nicole’s ring in it. He’s finally confessing that he did indeed kill Nicole. It’s totally Carl, it’s tongue in cheek and slightly terrifying. This man got away with a horrific murder. And then that leaves you thinking about what else he got away with. Which leaves us thinking like Grace.
It’s a perfect ending and I was absolutely shocked when it happened.
Overall, this is not what you think it will be. It’s not a fast paced brainless mystery thriller. It’s a slight slow burn, slowly unraveling, mystery with a lot of depth. Give yourself some time to read through this and chew over what’s really happening and the relationship between Grace and Carl. But don’t get me wrong...it’s a page turner. There are lead ups to certain scenes that leave you almost breathless as you wait to finally read the truth.
It’s incredibly well written and unique enough to stand out in this genre.
I’m definitely going to be checking out Heaberlin’s other books!