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‘Emma in the Night,’ a Thriller That Keeps Readers Guessing

Coincidence alert: One of the two detectives assigned to the Tanner girls’ case — Dr. Abigail Winter, a forensic psychologist with the F.B.I. — had a mistreated sister and a narcissistic mother, too. So she is well prepared to empathize with Cass as she investigates her disappearance, but that’s only half of Abby’s job. She and her male, safely married partner — just about the only nongoatish guy in the book — also have to figure out what became of Emma, who went missing and was never seen again.


The author Wendy Walker.

Bill Miles

Walker, who has been both an investment banker and an attorney practicing family law, leans hard on authority figures in her stories. She used a rape victim’s psychiatrist to narrate “All Is Not Forgotten,” and she tells half this story from Abby’s perspective, in reassuringly levelheaded, third-person language.

Abby has the relatively simple job of appraising Cass’s account, trying to figure out what it’s missing and chasing every lead. Cass, who lives in Connecticut (as does Walker), says she and Emma were spirited off to Maine and held captive on an island that had no identifying features. Grocery bags? Labels on catalogs? Neighbors or unexpected visitors? None of that. They were kept there by a solicitous-seeming couple.

That’s the necessary part of the story. Then there are the Styrofoam peanuts, like this one: “The thought of being free overwhelmed me with happiness. The thought of getting caught overwhelmed me with fear. Waves of elation and dread rolled through my body like the ocean, each one crashing against a wall and giving way to the next.” That’s what Cass sounds like when she keeps talking despite having nothing to say.

But most of “Emma in the Night” is about twists. Walker made them a specialty in “All Is Not Forgotten,” and she piles them on again this time, to much less credible effect. Thanks to this overkill, each of this book’s characters becomes more detestable as he or she becomes more fully revealed. Almost all of them are manipulative, delusional or dangerous. And the reader helplessly waits to see which of the endless terrible things that could happen actually will. If you like that kind of randomness, great. If you prefer rational plotting, you may blow a gasket over this.

“Emma in the Night” also offers the extra perk of treating marriage as flat-out war between the sexes. (Everyone in the book is seemingly straight.) The men here combine kinks with a sense of entitlement, and readily victimize the women, who are treated to a high quota of misogyny. A number of the women are sick, self-loathing schemers eager to act out their revenge fantasies, so the battle lines are evenly drawn.

At least Dr. Abby Winter turns out O.K., although any show of rotten mothering by “Mrs. Martin” is apt to trigger a predictable flashback to Abby’s childhood. And Cass? Well, it’s Walker’s job to keep us guessing, even at the risk of clumsily building her heroine out of mismatched parts.

Finally, where’s Emma? If this were a better book, we would be on tenterhooks about that question throughout. Instead, there’s so much else going on that solving the riddle of her disappearance sometimes shrinks into a minor matter. But Emma is not forgotten. Rest assured that the opportunity for a big, exploitative here-comes-Emma scene does not go to waste.

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