There is a long tradition of crime fiction being inspired by true life crimes. This runs the gamut from direct fictionalizations of actual cases to plots that simply harken back to various aspects of the cases that proved the launching point for the writing. Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Crimes places itself on the latter part of this spectrum – but there is no denying that the inspiration and allusions exist. The Jacob Wetterling abduction from Paynesville, Minnesota in the late 1980s was one of the first such cases to gain wide-spread attention and since Jess Lourey grew up in that town around that time, it only makes sense that she would work out her emotions regarding it through a novel. Unspeakable Crimes is the result.
Not surprisingly given her history, Jess Lourey approaches this story from the viewpoint of a young girl coming of age during a series of abductions in her town. Cassie McDowell is a tween growing up in a small town. She embodies that state of isolation felt by all kids as they struggle to find their place in the world, but for Cassie this is further complicated by her sometimes-odd family, her treatment by fellow classmates, and eventually her interest in this spate of disappearances that plague her community.
Fans of youth sleuths like vintage Nancy Drew and the more recent Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley will immediately connect with Cassie. Despite her difficult situation, this is a young girl who is determined to grow into an accomplished adult – and hellbent on making a difference along the way. She takes what she learns from watching those around her, from the media she consumes, and just from typical common sense to investigate on her own.
The novel is written in retrospect, as though Cassie is looking back at these seminal moments in her life. By doing this, it allows Jess Lourey to cap certain chapters with a bit of a cliffhanger hint, a sentence or two that acts as an allusion to future events designed to tease the reader into not only reading another chapter, but also to begin to make their assumptions about what is happening around Cassie and her environs. This act of making the reader complicit in the knowledge of some unknowable information is one of the most successful aspects of this gripping novel and represents a storyteller completely in control of her narrative.
There is a lot going on in Unspeakable Things. However, Jess Lourey’s style is to allow these revelations to unspool slowly, in an authentic way, just as if things had become clearer to Cassie as she matures before the reader’s eyes. Readers expecting a thriller feel, with action and excitement along the way should look elsewhere. This is not to say that the novel is boring or tedious, just that the milestones tend to skew more mundane and relatable than one might expect from a novel focused on serial abduction in a small town. Speaking of small towns, all the prejudices and suspicious one expects of such communities play a factor in how this novel heads towards its resolution.
The shorter chapters and the precociousness of Cassie help to keep Unspeakable Things moving forward for readers. Jess Lourey’s legion of fans is sure to grow with this new novel that is a bit darker than her previous work, but also seems so much more personal to the author herself. All will be waiting to see where Jess Lourey journeys next.