How Quickly She Disappears
By Raymond Fleischmann, Berkeley, 320 pages, 2020. $26
Alaska, with its daunting climate, endless wilderness and remoteness from the world, is the ideal location for mystery and thriller novels. Start with a good plot built on questions that devolve into a maze of half-answers, maintain the hint of imminent violence, add some long dark winter nights, then send the primary characters out to a cabin far from help for the climax, and you have all the elements of subarctic noir. It’s a genre unto itself, and one that gets a solid boost with “How Quickly She Disappears,” the riveting debut novel by Raymond Fleischmann.
The story opens in the Interior village of Tanacross during the summer of 1941. Elisabeth Pfautz, the daughter of German immigrants, has been a resident for a few years since her husband John, who hails from the same stock, had taken the job of schoolteacher. There they live with their precocious daughter Margaret, one of two white families in a Native community.
Elisabeth, around whom the plot revolves, has ghosts in her past (this is noir, after all). Twenty years earlier at the age of 11, her twin sister Jacqueline had walked away from the home they shared with their widowed father, saying she would return soon. She never did. Her disappearance drove their father to an alcoholic death a few years later, and has haunted Elisabeth ever since.
Into Elisabeth’s world comes Alfred Seidel, a German-born pilot and veteran of the wrong side’s military in what was then still called the Great War. He arrives in town by air, piloting the mail plane, filling in for the man who usually performs the route. Claiming engine troubles, he asks Elisabeth if he can stay in the guest room at the schoolhouse where her family lives. With much hesitation, she allows him to, and from there he will consume her life.
As with any such story, it’s dangerous to provide too many details in a review. Suffice to say that there is a murder and Alfred is taken into custody, having already confessed. He is flown to Fairbanks, and from there he writes to Elisabeth. He has knowledge of her missing twin, he says. He can reunite them, but first she must perform a series of tasks, each rewarded upon completion with hints that will guide her to Jacqueline.
From this Fleischmann builds his transfixing tale. Elisabeth, of course, complies, but with much hesitation and understandable fear. The story moves over time from Tanacross to Fairbanks, and from high summer to deep winter, as Elisabeth slowly carries out what is requested of her, fearfully wonders about her own safety and that of her family, and tries to gain the upper hand on a master manipulator. The hole she has fallen down shows no sign of a bottom. Her family unravels. She begins to go mad. The answer of what befell her sister, an answer that has eluded her for two decades, seems both closer and farther than ever. And Alfred Seidel remains an enigma, even as he seems to reveal himself.
Fleischmann achieves all of this with a striking sense of timing for a first-time novelist. He brings us into a family that seems reasonably happy from the outside, and gradually reveals the tensions that have been fraying it since well before the arrival of Alfred. Through flashbacks to Elisabeth’s childhood in rural Pennsylvania, he slowly unveils the broader circumstances that surrounded Jacqueline’s final weeks before she vanished. The meetings between Elisabeth and Alfred are rife with tension. Only in a few brief moments does violence erupt. Like the best thrillers, it’s the fear of that violence, not its actual occurrence, that will keep readers hooked from the first page.
Fleischmann also, and for the most part, does an exceptional job of evoking Interior Alaska. The land, the flora, the climate. Winter, of course, is bound to play a role, and a record January blizzard arrives with the climax. A bit of a cliche, perhaps, but noir is built on nothing if not cliches. It’s how those cliches get put to effective use that matters.
But while he perfectly conveys the oppressiveness of an Interior Alaska winter, with darkness on all sides, what he captures as well is the vastly different oppressiveness of the region’s summer, when the light never fades, and exhaustion from lack of sleep brings its own mental challenges. Few novelists writing about Alaska take notice of this.
Curiously, the one thing he missed was the fall. The second of the three acts making up this book takes place in September, but in Fleischmann’s handling it’s an extension of summer. He’s not an Alaskan, although he has roots here, and it can be forgiven. But longtime residents of the Interior know September to be the most transitional month of the year, when darkness encroaches on — and then overtakes — daylight, and temperatures vacillate between the final shots of warmth and the bone chilling cold to come. It’s a minor complaint, perhaps, but a missed opportunity that could have enhanced the middle section and helped set the stage for the the finale to come.
He certainly captures the historic moment, however. As remote as Tanacross is, the war raging in Europe is touching on everyday life, and the shared German heritage of Elisabeth, her husband John, and Alfred, puts them in a decidedly tense position relative to others. By the third act the United States has entered the war, the military is moving throughout and suddenly developing Alaska, and fears of a Japanese invasion, which were quite pronounced at the time, are voiced. As historical fiction, this is very well researched.
“How Quickly She Disappears” kept me up way past a reasonable bedtime as its mysteries built and its characters tumbled. The ending suggests a sequel, although one likely to take the story Outside. But as subarctic noir, this one is quite masterful. Even if this storyline doesn’t return to Alaska, one hopes Fleischmann will.