Review: The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen



Minotaur Books | 2017

Filed Under: Birthday cards and beer bottles doing their best to be creepy

This novel reads like the author really likes to watch the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime movies. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re into that.

Thor knows, I’ve binged all of the Aurora Teagarden movies like a fucking champ.

The Vanishing Season ticks off a lot of boxes on the “Cozy Lifetime Mystery Checklist.”

That’s a thing. Let’s go through it…

In a small town (✓), Abigail Hathaway, who now goes by Ellery and escaped a serial killer as a teenager (✓), is now a cop herself (✓). But no one knows about her dark past (✓) and she intends to keep it that way. Ellery, with knowledge no one else has (✓), connects three seemingly unrelated missing persons cases that she’s never worked on (✓) and decides there must be a copycat killer in her tiny town (✓), but no one believes her (✓) and won’t unless she outs her true identity (✓). What this killer really wants is her (✓)! The killer starts to leave her notes and packages to let her know he knows who she is and is watching her (✓).

Ellery calls for backup in the form of a disgraced FBI agent (✓), who also happens to be the same agent that saved her from certain death all those years ago (✓).

I can totally see a C-list actress in the lead role – a Candace Cameron Bure or Haylie Duff – gasping at mysterious birthday cards and empty beer bottles that are too close to her property, having an affair with her boss and dodging out of the way of a car that tries to run her off a dark, empty road.

From up here on my high horse, I’ve got to say there is nothing especially original or interesting about this novel. It just is what it is.

The plot points are fairly generic and super tame in terms of their sinister quality. Honestly, birthday cards and beer bottles don’t get my heart racing. They’re doing their best, but good god someone needed to give them some help. The severed hands that randomly pop up, so to speak, could provide a more sensitive reader with a good thrill, but to me, it almost came across as silly.

Ellery, as a character, I found more annoying than anything else. I can understand her not wanting to reveal who she really is, but it did reach a point where her “but I don’t wanna because my privacy!” came across like she was a whiny, selfish baby when compared to the dire situation of, you know, people dying and being kidnapped by a murderer connected to her. That kind of stuff. “I don’t wanna!” doesn’t really hold up in that climate. A likeable character would have known when to be self-sacrificing.

For such a short story (the hardcover I read clocked in at 274 pages), it’s surprisingly sleepy but manages to also pack in a lot of character information. I didn’t find it suspenseful or creepy, but rather quiet and simple, kind of like the town Ellery lived in.

The atmosphere is decidedly dark, but I didn’t feel the level of the crimes reached the level of the atmosphere. The crimes were all around too safe, too gentle and too easy to predict and felt disjointed inside the setting the author created.

Also, there is literally nothing I hate more than a villain who monologues his childhood and motive and actions, while holding a weapon, at the end of a story. This is not therapy hour and it really bogs down a climax. (That’s what she said.)

As far as Lifetime stories go, it’s a fine read. Not awful, not amazing either. If you like this kind of thing then I promise it’s right up your Gail O’Grady alley.

That’s a thing, too.

The cover gets an A+, though.


Ellery Hathaway knows a thing or two about serial killers, but not through her police training. She’s an officer in sleepy Woodbury, MA, where a bicycle theft still makes the newspapers. No one there knows she was once victim number seventeen in the grisly story of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only victim who lived. 

When three people disappear from her town in three years, all around her birthday—the day she was kidnapped so long ago—Ellery fears someone knows her secret. Someone very dangerous. Her superiors dismiss her concerns, but Ellery knows the vanishing season is coming and anyone could be next. She contacts the one man she knows will believe her: the FBI agent who saved her from a killer’s closet all those years ago.

Agent Reed Markham made his name and fame on the back of the Coben case, but his fortunes have since turned. His marriage is in shambles, his bosses think he’s washed up, and worst of all, he blew a major investigation. When Ellery calls him, he can’t help but wonder: sure, he rescued her, but was she ever truly saved? His greatest triumph is Ellery’s waking nightmare, and now both of them are about to be sucked into the past, back to the case that made them…with a killer who can’t let go.

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