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lost boy lost girl
Peter Straub
Random House, 304 pages

lost boy lost girl
Peter Straub
Peter Straub was born in 1943 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He received a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1965, a M.A. from Columbia University in 1966 and then returned to Wisconsin to spend three years teaching English at his former high school. In 1969, he went to Ireland and to work on a Ph.D. at University College, Dublin. His first novel, Marriages, was published in 1973. His novel, Koko, won a 1989 World Fantasy Award.

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A review by Hank Luttrell

Sometimes you'll hear this rule about creative writing: write about what you know. A useful idea, but it sometimes leads to unreadable stories something like this: Well, see, there's this cab driver, because I drive cab, you know, only he's really a novelist, you know, and he gets lots of strange fares, like, and one time one of his fares is a vampire. I just made up that last part for the story.

So there is another guideline which suggests you avoid using a writer as your main character. For one thing, writing isn't a very interesting or colorful profession, as it consists of planting your keister in a chair and, you know, writing, or maybe just thinking. Either way, not many car chases or fire fights. Certainly not very romantic.

So here comes Peter Straub, with protagonist Tim Underhill, successful writer, also a character in Straub's Koko and The Throat.

Tim Underhill is not close to his brother who still lives in their home town, but he can't fail to return to help when his brother's wife commits suicide and their son mysteriously disappears, perhaps a victim of a serial killer. Tim recruits his buddy Tom Pasmore, a Nero Wolfe- or Sherlock Holmes-type who investigates crimes using information (public and confidential) he finds on the internet. Eventually, a woman professor, visiting from Madison Wisconsin, helps identify the killer.

lost boy lost girl is clearly a ghost story. It is also a book with many strongly developed characters, and a convincingly invoked sense of place, a midwestern city in Illinois. Called "Millhaven," it is said that when filmmakers need old time Chicago locations, they come instead to Millhaven. This book is certainly a disturbing horror novel.

There are also many things this novel isn't: while it is a murder mystery, it is far from a traditional murder mystery. Nor is it a traditional ghost story or a traditional horror novel.

A conventional murder mystery involves a crime, a puzzle about who the perpetrator is, a set of clues, and perhaps most importantly, a cast of suspects limited to characters with prominent parts in the story. None of this structure is part of Peter Straub's book.

One interesting and disturbing bit of local color is the adoption of details similar to the Chicago 1893 Columbian Exposition serial killer, Dr. Herman Mudgett, "H. H. Holmes," who ran a hotel especially customized to facilitate his murders. Straub's story features a custom-built house with secret passage ways, a torture chamber and chutes for corpses. The murder house in Millhaven is now abandoned and almost forgotten, its memory suppressed by residents, but it has a powerful connection to the Underhill family.

Ask people if they believe in ghosts and you'll probably mostly hear "no." I wonder, though. I think we mostly do believe in ghosts. We've all lost loved ones, family, close friends, even pets. You probably don't exactly believe they are gone. You still feel their presence in your life. If you are like me, you still ask your grandmother for advice, and somehow you can still hear her reply. You still feel like your grandfather is part of your world. This is far from a sinister haunting; they are still here because you value them, you want them in your life. This kind of lingering ghostly presence is part of what lost boy lost girl is about.

This book is also about sinister hauntings, tainted with remorse and guilt and dread. Part of what makes this novel both creepy and yet simultaneously uplifting is its non-linear structure. Numerous sections of the story are told from various viewpoints, such as the mother's anguish just before her suicide. Much of the same story is told from the viewpoint of the teenage skateboarder Mark Underhill, the boy who disappears, and his buddy Jimbo, as they explore and discover Millhaven's ghosts and killers. These narratives are revealing, but mysterious until Tim Underhill's journal, interspersed with the other narrative threads, puts it all in order.

Copyright © 2003 Hank Luttrell

Hank Luttrell has reviewed science fiction for newspapers, magazines and web sites. He was nominated for the Best Fanzine Hugo Award and is currently a bookseller in Madison, Wisconsin.

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