>>Finally got around to it: March 2016
“I keep thinking about this place,” she blurts. “And don’t laugh, okay? Because I know it sounds crazy, and maybe it just proves how desperate I am. But in my therapy group, there’s this woman I have coffee with, and we talk about our escape plans, what we’d do if things got too bad. She has a place she’d go.”
“A cabin or something?”
“No, a town. For people who need to disappear. A place where no one can find them.”
“Like an underground railway for abuse victims?”
“For anyone in trouble. It’s an entire town of people who’ve disappeared.”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, Di, but that sounds like a classic urban legend. Think about it. An invisible town? In today’s world, you’re never really off the grid. How would a place like that work? The economy, the security…”
“I’m not saying I believe in it. The point is that it proves how far I’ve fallen, Case. I can’t stop thinking about it. Obsessing over it. Telling myself maybe, just maybe, it could be real.”
“It isn’t,” I say. “Now, if you want to talk real strategies and escape plans, we can do that. But no fantasy bullshit. It’s a real problem; it needs a real solution.”
Detective Casey Duncan is haunted by her past. When she was just eighteen, she shot a man dead—her ex-boyfriend, Blaine. It wasn’t a cold-blooded murder, though, nothing so simple or premeditated. See, Blaine was a low-level drug dealer, and a child of Montréal’s Saratori crime family. He and Casey hooked up while she was a fledgling police cadet; he was, for lack of better phrasing, her “walk on the wild side.” But Blaine was more reckless than Casey at first realized, and when they were accosted one night by men who claimed Blaine was dealing on their turf, Casey’s would-be beau took off into the night, leaving her to face a wrath better directed at him.
She was left for dead that night, with, among other things: several fractures all over her body, a severe concussion, an intracranial hematoma, and lacerations. Oh, and she was probably raped, too, but somehow the rape kit mysteriously vanished before it could be processed.
It takes Casey eighteen months to recover from the attack, during which time Blaine never once visits or expresses concern. And when she finally does confront him, he wastes no time shirking all responsibility, going so far as to blame her for “allowing” herself to be raped and assaulted.
So yeah, he pretty much got what he deserved.
But Casey is unfortunately left shouldering the emotional burden of her crime, and though she has since become a respected detective (who also happens to be a black belt in aikido), she is unable to escape her past. So she periodically visits with new therapists, immediately confessing to them what she did, waiting for that day when one of them breaks confidentiality and Leo Saratori’s goons come knocking on her door; or that of her closest friend Diana; or Kurt, the troubled bartender with whom she’s sleeping (who is not-so-secretly the most interesting and trustworthy character in the book).
Her friend Diana, whom Casey has known and confided in for years (and is the only other person who knows what happened to Blaine), has demons of her own in the form of her ex-husband Graham, a lawyer and psychopath who has terrorized and traumatized Diana for years. When Graham steps back into the picture and beats Diana to within an inch of her life, and a Saratori henchman tracks Casey down and wounds Kurt trying to get to her, Diana is able to convince Casey to flee with her to a city that might or might not exist—a place where they can retreat from their pasts, until their pasts forget they exist.
This is the premise for author Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost, the first of a new series starring Detective Casey Duncan (or Butler, as she’s later renamed). The titular city, called Rockton, is a wilderness town that doesn’t exist on any map. Home to some two hundred souls seeking to escape crimes, traumas, and the mistakes of their pasts, its closest neighbour being the Yukon Territory’s Dawson City, Rockton is a mostly self-sustaining environment surrounded by a dark and sometimes violent forest. And like any city or town, regardless of size, it has its share of problems: prostitution, drug use (a local opiate called “Rydex,” or just “dex”), and of course, murder. Which is why, despite her past crime, Casey is allowed into town alongside Diana—because the existing sheriff, a rough plank of wood named Eric Dalton, needs all the help he can get to bring some semblance of justice to a town comprised of, as he puts it, women fleeing shit choices in men, and men fleeing shit choices in life.
Rockton itself is a fascinating idea, one rife with potential for mystery and subterfuge. (Even the town’s origins, as a refuge for those escaping McCarthy-era America in the 1950s, offer tantalizing possibility as to the sorts of individuals it houses or might house in future instalments.) And Armstrong does a pretty great job setting the stage for a hostile environment in which one could believe people living to avoid having to pay the price, or suffer the consequences, for the unfortunate ways in which their lives have turned out. At its core, however, this book is popcorn pleasure, and while I can see the many ways in which this sort of environment could be used for more in-depth commentary on modern society and what one must jettison to live a life (mostly) free from one’s demons, Armstrong never strays much from the core mystery’s path.
Where she does falter, however, is with respect to the novel’s core relationship between the aforementioned sheriff and town hardass Dalton, and our protagonist. From the jump, the two have a strained relationship, with Dalton initially untrusting of Casey, and Casey working to figure out how to adapt to life in Rockton and with what’s expected of her as Dalton’s partner in crime—so to speak. Both are strong characters, and the manner in which their friendship builds atop all their sarcasm and personal scar tissue—both literal and figurative—is done exceedingly well… but that’s all it ever was or should have been. A friendship. Or, that’s how I felt while reading.
The single largest issue I have with this book is that Armstrong wrote a hell of a friendship, one that felt both natural and, more importantly, earned. But I never got even the slightest hint of actual romantic chemistry between its two leads. So when events push them together, it simply never worked for me. Worse, their coming together almost immediately alters both their personalities and they become like puppy dogs to one another. Whatever fire existed at the core of their friendship, the fire that linked them as people, is readily tossed aside and, for the final third of the book, it feels like we are left following two new and different people. They share the same lives and histories as the characters we’ve been following from moment one, but once they decide to couple up they stop resembling their former selves on an emotional level. As a result, the events of the final chapters, and the threats to both their well-beings, simply don’t land with the same weight they could have had the characters remained more true to who they were, and felt less shoved in a direction that simply wasn’t natural.
Honestly, it felt to me like light character assassination, and in the end I lost interest in both of them. Oh, how I wish they would have remained friends, and built something more sibling like in terms of trust and experience, rather than what felt like a very forced coupling. That, and the fact that their first physical experience together, out in the woods, is deeply uncomfortable for a myriad of reasons—and is far too easily brushed aside once Casey decides to push ahead with their relationship.
Second on my list of complaints is something I don’t want to get into with too much detail, as to do so would be to spoil the ending, but holy shit the glut of information provided by the villain at the climax reeks of needing to finish the novel as quickly as possible. It’s a monologue so complete and inorganically detailed as to make even the best (or worst) Bond villain cringe… or maybe the better comparison would be that of some old amusement park owner whose evil schemes were thwarted by a bunch of kids and a dog driving some sort of Mystery Machine…
There is some satisfaction to be had in the revelations of the book’s latter half—Diana’s true nature, Dalton’s shady and complicated past—but I will say I was more frustrated than anything, both by the speed at which the plot wrapped up (via the aforementioned info-dump), and by the lack of closure experienced at the very end. Granted this is the start of a series, but there should still be some sense of closure at the end of a story like this, and I simply did not feel that was achieved. In other words, it felt too much like the first chapter of something larger, and not a complete tale in and of itself.