Joanna Schaffhausen’s fifth book in her Ellery Hathaway series, Last Seen Alive, focuses on the horror of its central sleuth’s past. As a child, Ellery survived being kidnapped by the notorious serial killer Francis Coben—she was the only person to ever do so. Decades later, she’s changed her name and found purpose as a police officer, but she has never escaped the nightmares about her time as Coben’s captive. Now on death row, Coben makes an offer to reveal the location of the remains of his other victims, but only to Ellery and only in an on-camera interview. She initially refuses, disgusted with Coben’s desire to manipulate her even behind bars. But when a woman is found killed in Coben’s style, Ellery realizes that he is working with someone on the outside and that their meeting will affect more than just cold cases.
This gritty police procedural doesn’t flinch at violence, but spends as much if not more time exploring its effects and how they are compounded by sensationalist media. Ellery knows she must agree to the interview but struggles to reconcile this fact with the approach of the Nancy Grace-esque broadcaster, who is desperate to conduct it. While the special purports to celebrate Ellery’s survival, the coverage focuses on the torture she endured, to the point of zooming in on Ellery’s physical scars.
Schaffhausen keeps the reader firmly in Ellery’s perspective as she follows Coben’s twisted clues, making the tension nearly unbearable. Fans of darker mysteries that don’t shy away from the gory details will enjoy this well-crafted and thoughtful whodunit.
Like Ellery, Micah Wilkes is looking to leave the past behind in Catch Her When She Falls by Allison Buccola. When Micah was in high school, her boyfriend, Alex Swift, killed her best friend, Emily Winters. Alex has spent 10 years in prison, and Micah has spent that time trying to escape being known solely as the ex-girlfriend of a murderer, a footnote in true crime history.
Alex was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence, and now a podcast is revisiting the case. Soon internet commenters are questioning her stoicism during the trial and wondering if she had something to do with the crime. When she receives threatening texts and someone breaks into her apartment, Micah starts to wonder if the media attention on Alex’s case has driven someone to harass her or if Emily’s real killer is still out there. She begins her own investigation, even as those closest to her criticize her need to unbury the past, making her feel attacked by both those she loves and those she’s never met.
Buccola dives into the anxious, painful workings of Micah’s mind as she pieces together the bits of her past that she’s locked away. Readers will find themselves doubting reality along with Micah as she questions the narrative she’s always believed about her friend’s death. While not scary, Catch Her When She Falls is wildly suspenseful and almost gothic in tone, making it the perfect book for a reader looking for thrills without any gritty or gory aspects.
Both Last Seen Alive and Catch Her When She Falls show incredible empathy for the mental and emotional toll the media takes on not only victims of a crime, but also their friends and family. It’s a humanizing view of women’s trauma that’s not always found in a genre practically built upon their pain.