HelenKay: Books centered on kidnapped children know no genre boundaries. Missing and endangered children are as plentiful in fiction as they are in life. Mysteries and thrillers are logical places to find these fictional children in peril. Romantic suspense and literary fiction often provide fertile ground for this plot as well. While some books like Lovely Bones explore this subject from a fresh angle, many others travel the same path. This relative sameness drains some of the emotion from the suspense aspect of the read. Kate Pepper avoids the read-this-all-before feel in her book One Cold Night by focusing less on the kidnapping than on the desperation and uncertainty of those left behind. The result is a full and engaging exploration of loss, love, deceit and faith.
New York police detective David Strauss deals with harsh realities on the job. At home, he finds contentment with his wife, chocolate shop owner Susan Bailey-Strauss. Their biggest strife centers on having children – David wants them and Susan isn’t ready. Susan’s fourteen-year-old sister Lisa lives with them and, on the surface, all is well with the family.
David, a Harvard-graduate, followed in his family’s footsteps and joined the force. He has been able to solve every case but one – the disappearance of thirteen-year-old Becky Rothka. One year later, the case still haunts him. The night Becky disappeared her mother received a note purportedly from Becky, but in another person’s handwriting, saying she now belonged to someone else and asking for a closed casket funeral. Since the disappearance, Becky’s mother periodically receives taunting calls from the kidnapper, a man David has nicknamed the groom. What David doesn’t know is that Susan is keeping a secret. The secret threatens them all. When Lisa disappears and the groom resurfaces along with Susan’s hidden past, David’s work life and home life collide.
Pepper exposes Susan’s secret early. The reader and Lisa know long before David does that Lisa is really Susan’s daughter. This piece of the puzzle isn’t a surprise. The reader isn’t dragged along on a useless journey to uncover Susan’s secret. The who and why of Lisa’s disappearance are not particularly suspenseful here. That is not to say the book is without action or the adrenalin needed to carry the plot. There is a convincing race-against-time feel and a ticking clock in terms of finding Lisa, but the suspense is more of a psychological nature. That difference sets One Cold Night apart from other missing children thrillers.
In many ways, One Cold Night is less about the actual kidnapping than it is about the people impacted by the devastation and their reactions, both emotional and in terms of what they do, in response to the situation. David’s unshakable trust in his wife is tested. Lisa’s life and everything she’s known unravels. Susan is torn by her love for Lisa, her love for David, and the desperate regret that she has placed them both in danger. There are several intriguing secondary characters here as well. Becky’s mother adds a real face to the torture and horror of waiting for information on a missing child. Several of the investigators and police officers called in to help with the case receive a deeper treatment than just being named. Even Lisa’s best friend and her family play roles here. The cast is large and some players probably could have been left out, but the impact of all of these people dropping into the otherwise simple lives of Susan and David creates a believable chaos. These intersecting lives and the manner in which Pepper moves back and forth between the Susan’s fears, David’s confusion and Lisa’s situation makes this a compelling, hard-to-put-down read.
The motivations behind the kidnappings are explained, maybe even too neatly. In real life, the reasons and What For’s likely would not be as clear, but this is fiction. And, really, the strength of the book does not lie in an intricate suspense plot. There are only so many reasons to terrorize children and all of them are horrific and none can be justified. The horror here is downplayed but never ignored or glossed over. The risk and worry hover right on the surface but are played out more through David and Susan and the people surrounding them, than by Lisa.
In the end this is a thriller and a very good one. But, it is also a deeper study into what happens when married people are so busy protecting each other that they end up deceiving each other. Most of David and Susan’s time plays out separately. Despite that, at base, this is about a layered and relatable family – about David and Susan’s love for each other and for Lisa, about their competing faiths and pasts. On an even more fundamental level, One Cold Night really is about David, his reaction to Susan’s secret and his fear of not being able to protect his family.
Final Thought: A thriller that dissects what happens to a cozy family when secrecy and violence shadow its doors.
You can visit Kate here and buy this book here or here.