Quick Review: THE STOLEN ONES by Owen Laukkanen (G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Corvus)

LaukkanenO-S&W4-StolenOnesUSStevens & Windermere get caught up investigating an international sex-trafficking organization

When you’ve got nothing left, you’ve got nothing left to lose.

Cass County, Minnesota: A sheriff’s deputy steps out of a diner on a rainy summer evening, and a few minutes later, he’s lying dead in the mud. When BCA agent Kirk Stevens arrives on the scene, he discovers local authorities have taken into custody a single suspect: A hysterical young woman found sitting by the body, holding the deputy’s own gun. She has no ID, speaks no English. A mystery woman.

The mystery only deepens from there, as Stevens and Carla Windermere, his partner in the new joint BCA – FBI violent crime task force, find themselves on the trail of a massive international kidnapping and prostitution operation. Before the two agents are done, they will have traveled over half the country, from Montana to New York, and come face-to-face not only with the most vicious man either of them has ever encountered — but two of the most courageous women.

They are sisters, stolen ones. But just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you have to stay one.

I only recently discovered Laukkanen’s thrillers, but he has quickly become an author whose books I think I will always buy. The Stolen Ones is the fourth novel in the Stephens & Windermere series, and an excellent thriller. Laukkanen is getting better with each new novel, I think.

As has become expected, the story moves at a very brisk pace. As Stephens’s and Windermere’s cases converge, the former getting roped (willingly) into the national manhunt for both the missing girls and their abductors, we are taken from Minnesota to New Jersey. We follow the case as our protagonists come up against a frustrating, fear-induced omertà among captured traffickers and also those who may have information. In addition, they are attempting to convince Irina (the young woman mentioned in the synopsis) that they are the good guys. I thought it was pretty interesting, the way Laukkanen wove some internal distrust of cops and, after her ordeal, men in general in Irina’s interactions with the BCA and FBI. We also get Irina’s sister Catalina’s perspective, remaining in captivity.

Laukkanen doesn’t draw the story out, either, so everything keeps moving. Also, this means he can fit in a fair amount of plot without turning in a door-stopper. It’s sparse, very tight and to the point. If I was given to florid reviews, or wanted to provide a cover quote, I’d probably say this had “razor-sharp plotting”. Which I suppose it does. The ending is pretty epic, too.

LaukkanenO-S&W4-StolenOnesUKWhile reading, I felt The Stolen Ones had a higher body-count than previous novels in the series, but given the nature of the villains, that was probably unsurprising. Laukkanen does a great job of painting the traffickers as paranoid and distrustful of their own, while also utterly ruthless when it comes to getting a job done. Indeed, it is that ruthlessness that kicks off Stephens’s involvement in the case. It was also interesting reading about quietly sinister villains — the Dragon, despite his melodramatic moniker, is quite creepy. The control he is able to exert over Volovoi was interesting, too, showing that there are always worse monsters lurking in the background… Perhaps the scariest thing about the novel, though, was how efficient and businesslike the trafficking operation is, how professional.

The different perspectives are juggled very well, each character given their own voice and identity. I enjoyed the non-romantic relationship between Stephens (happily married) and Windermere (it’s a bit complicated). Both have a good balance between flaws and strengths, with each complementing the other’s skills well. I welcomed the fact that they could make mistakes, or be misled. They are both highly competent, but their revelations never felt supernaturally inspired — leaps are identified as such, but sometimes they pay off handily. It was also nice to see certain breakthroughs achieved by minor characters, and the “stars” not hogging all of the limelight and glory.

It may be a lazy comparison, but Laukkanen’s novels remind me a bit of John Sandford’s, which are also set in and around Minnesota. Perhaps it’s a Minnesota-crime vibe that is shared by the two authors’ work, or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that they share locales. The focus on character and plot, though… Both authors excel in these areas. I enjoy them both almost as much as the other (with Sandford only slightly ahead).

Overall, a very good new novel in one of my favourite new thriller series. Highly recommended. A must for any fan of the genre.

*

The Stolen Ones is published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in North America, and Corvus Books in the UK. The fifth novel in the series, The Watcher in the Wall is also out now.

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