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William Morrow, March 2024
350 pages
ISBN: 0063298341

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

HAS ANYONE SEEN CHARLOTTE SALTER? is a tragedy in three acts, about two neighboring families from a small town in eastern England, whose lives become intertwined by tragedies that go unexplained for decades. The latest of twenty-six novels by Nicci French - the pen name for the collaborating spouses Nicci Gerrard and Sam French – opens with a sad, atmospheric little tale beginning a week before Christmas in 1990, when Charlotte "Charlie" Salter vanishes on the way to her husband's birthday party. Charlie is seen by the reader only through the eyes of the people who knew her: lovely, talented and charming, a devoted mother and unhappily married wife. When she disappears, it is as though she takes all of the light and warmth of the household with her. The events of that cold, dreary winter are mostly seen through the eyes of Etty, Charlie’s youngest child and only daughter: a bright, vulnerable teenager whose destiny is altered when she realizes that her mother is not coming back, and that nobody can figure out why.

The inept small-town police investigators find Charlie's coat, but not her body, so it’s easy to think that maybe she has just run out on her irritable, mean-spirited husband Alec. It's just as easy, though, to think that maybe Alec is the murderer. His alibi waivers; he doesn’t seem to miss her very much, nor does he care to cooperate with the police. Later that week, Etty and her friend Greg Ackerly do find a body floating in a nearby river, but it's not Charlie's; it's the remains of Greg’s father, the equally unhappily married Duncan Ackerly.

Early in the new year the cops close the investigation, assuming that Duncan and Charlie were probably having an affair, that he probably murdered her, and probably dealt with the guilt by leaping to his death. It's a convenient conclusion that’s satisfactory for most of the cops involved, interesting for the nosy neighbors and devastating for the surviving families.

Thirty years later, the once tender-hearted Etty is now a brittle, bitter, unhappy attorney, returning to the village for the first time in decades. She and two of her brothers are preparing to sell their childhood home and settle Alec into a nursing home. Their arrival coincides with that of Duncan Ackerly's adult sons. Greg is still burdened by the memory of helping Etty pull his father’s body out of the river, and his younger brother Morgan is now a critically-acclaimed documentarian who is planning a podcast about the death of Duncan and the disappearance of Charlie. True crime podcasts can seem so intrusive, so insensitive, but in this case, the content creators have lost someone, too. The Salters and Ackerlys, so resentful of one another, are all living with heartbreaking, unresolved traumas.

The disturbing events continue into the present day, when a woman who has been hired to clean out the Salter home is killed in a gruesome house fire, and Etty is arrested for her murder. The arrest leads to the arrival of Detective Inspector Maud O'Connor from London, who has been dispatched to the village to finally consider the possibility that the fire, the disappearance of Charlotte Salter, and Duncan Ackerly's alleged suicide are somehow related. Maud, a smart, impatient, ambitious woman with an unhappy personal life, becomes the central character in the third act: a riveting, perfectly paced police procedural.

Early on it becomes clear that her superiors have sent Maud out to the countryside on an assignment that could make or break her career; either she will redeem the department by unravelling a convoluted series of events that have spanned the turn of a century, or take the fall so that neither the men in London, nor their counterparts in the village, have to accept much of the blame.

The novel's conclusion is not just about what happened to Charlotte Salter, or Duncan Ackerly, or the arson victim Bridget Wolfe; it reflects the lingering impact of unspoken secrets and the way that unresolved assumptions turn into gossip and media fodder. French suggests that maybe the greatest crime of all is how long it took, for someone other than these poor damaged families to truly care about what happened on that chilly December night, all those years ago.

§Mary-Jane Oltarzewski is an Assistant Teaching Professor with the Rutgers University Writing Program. In her spare time she enjoys coffee crawls, listening to jazz and show tunes, and spending time in the Catskills with her husband, and a cat who bears a strong resemblance to the Reviewing the Evidence mascot.

Reviewed by Mary Jane Oltarzewski, March 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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