Book Review: Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in Paper Ghosts

As well as being a riveting psychological thriller, this tale of a road trip across Texas with a serial killer shows the state in an intimate light

Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in <i>Paper Ghosts</i>

Road Tripping With a Serial Killer in <i>Paper Ghosts</i>

There's something really special about crime stories set in Texas. Between the heat, the sheer distance between places, and how Texas promotes itself as legend, our state makes a fascinating backdrop for books that look at the human condition's seedier side.

Julia Heaberlin's Paper Ghosts is a road trip story, a psychological thriller, and a cold case whodunit that stretches across Texas. The narrator is a young woman whose sister was killed years ago, and the murderer was never found. She is convinced she knows the killer: a photographer named Carl Louis Feldman, whose pictures link him not just to her sister's death but also to a string of other murders across the state. There's a problem, though: Carl's in the early stages of dementia. Or is he really? He might just be lying to protect himself.

The narrator devises a ruse to take Carl away from his halfway house on a road trip from crime scene to crime scene. She plans to break through the fog of his memory loss and make him confess to her sister's murder. Carl goes along for the ride, but he's hardly a docile companion.

It's a stretch to believe that this narrator would willingly sit in a car next to the man she believes is a serial killer for 10 days. It's also a little far-fetched to picture the victim's sister sharing a hotel suite with a supposed murderer whose mind is slipping, locked door or otherwise. If you can go along with that, though, this is a gripping story with a surprising and complicated end.

Heaberlin clearly has a deep love of place. The narrator and her quarry travel together through Houston and Austin, Galveston and Waco. They hit smaller towns along the way, and they go to Marfa (of course). The settings that stick hardest in the memory, though, are the intimate places: a greasy diner, a dive bar, a boutique hotel, a vet clinic. The ordinary and unglamorous locations of real life become scenes of creepy transformation.

Fans of thrillers and crime novels will likely enjoy the book's many uncertainties. It's also a clever touch to feature a photographer who claims he can't recall his own past and who's convinced he sees people that aren't really there. Skip over a couple of the hard-to-believe character choices and Paper Ghosts is a riveting summer read that shows Texas in a powerfully intimate light.


Paper Ghosts

by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books, 368 pp., $17

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More July Is Crime Month
Austin Author Chandler Baker Talks About Creating a Novel for the #MeToo Movement
Austin Author Chandler Baker Talks About Creating a Novel for the #MeToo Movement
Writer of Whisper Network offers a healthy dose of righteous indignation

M. Brianna Stallings, July 26, 2019

<i>Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee</i> by Casey Cep
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Casey Cep solves the mystery of the true crime book that Harper Lee never wrote

Rosalind Faires, July 19, 2019

More crime fiction
<i>Lady in the Lake</i> by Laura Lippman
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
Sixties Baltimore is unveiled in this new crime novel

Rosalind Faires, Jan. 3, 2020

<i>A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary</i> by Terry Shames
A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary by Terry Shames
Police chief Samuel Craddock searches for a missing friend while on a visit to Jarrett Creek, Texas

Robert Faires, July 19, 2019

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Teacher</i> by Michal Ben-Naftali
The Teacher
This prize-winning novel's tale of a student piecing together the hidden life of her teacher, a Holocaust survivor who killed herself, is haunting

Jay Trachtenberg, Feb. 14, 2020

<i>The Dutch House</i> by Ann Patchett
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
In her eighth novel, Ann Patchett shows that what makes a family cannot be measured by the grandness of a house

Yvette Benavides, Oct. 4, 2019

More by Elizabeth Cobbe
Sad Girls Productions’ <i>So Lucky</i>
Sad Girls Productions' So Lucky
This world premiere from a brand-new company lacks polish, but it does honor its community’s stories

March 20, 2020

Review: <i>Come From Away</i>
Review: Come From Away
Tale of ordinary people embracing strangers is extraordinary

Feb. 19, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

July Is Crime Month, crime fiction, Texas literature, Crime Month 2019, Julia Haeberlin

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle