Stolen Things: is ambitious and compelling, but bites off more than it can handle

What is this about?: Jojo and her mother, Laurie, search for Harper, Jojo’s missing best friend. What they find though is that the place they thought they could turn to — the police — could’ve kidnapped Harper.

What else is this about?: This wants to give some sort of commentary about Black Lives Matter and the deaths of black people in custody. It also wants to be a story of a family breaking apart and Jojo coming to terms with who she is.

Blurb

A sensational crime, a missing teen, and a mother and daughter with no one to trust but themselves come together in this shocking debut thriller by R. H. Herron.

“Mama? Help me.”

Laurie Ahmadi has worked as a 911 police dispatcher in her quiet Northern California town for nearly two decades. She considers the department her family; her husband, Omid, is its first Arab American chief, and their teenaged daughter, Jojo, has grown up with the force. So when Laurie catches a 911 call and, to her horror, it’s Jojo, the whole department springs into action.

Jojo, drugged, disoriented, and in pain, doesn’t remember how she ended up at the home of Kevin Leeds, a pro football player famous for his on-the-field activism and his work with the CapB—“Citizens Against Police Brutality”—movement. She doesn’t know what happened to Kevin’s friend and trainer, whose beaten corpse is also discovered in the house. And she has no idea where her best friend Harper, who was with her earlier in the evening, could be.

But when Jojo begins to dive into Harper’s social media to look for clues to her whereabouts, Jojo uncovers a shocking secret that turns everything she knew about Harper—and the police department—on its head. With everything they thought they could rely on in question, Laurie and Jojo begin to realize that they can’t trust anyone to find Harper except themselves . . . and time is running out.

Stolen Things gives no quarter from the first page, with Laurie getting a 911 call from Jojo who has just woken up in a house, and thinks she may have been raped. Laurie sends the cops and her husband to the scene, even as she tries to be there for her daughter on the line.

It’s intense writing, drawing you into the scene — into Laurie’s grief, even as she sets about trying to help her daughter from afar. 

Jojo is the other POV in this story. She is a quintessential 16 year old — trying to establish her independence from her family and figure herself out and her sexuality. She loves Harper, so when Harper goes missing she is frantic to find her, worried beyond belief Harper is gone even before Jojo can truly understand what’s between them.

However, as these two begin to investigate Harper’s disappearance, the real Harper comes to the fore — as does the real police department. Because Laurie and Omid’s friends are involved, casting the department in a light that Laurie doesn’t really know how to deal with. They’re her friends, Omid’s friends, and yet here a group of cops could be involved in Harper’s disappearance. 

Notice how I haven’t mentioned the chief yet? He is sidelined in the story for good reason, and Herron’s choice amps up the tension, even as she continues to keep him part of the story in unexpected ways. This family is affected by Harper’s disappearance in different ways. 

However, this is where the narrative lets me down

The author makes it clear in the notes to her book that she supports Black Lives Matter and the inclusion of CapB bears that out. However, it feels like this book should have been about Jojo and Harper or Jojo and Kevin and CapB, without mixing up the two because int his story, CapB and Kevin are an afterthought.

Let me explain: Kevin is accused of raping Jojo even though she knows it can’t be him. His best friend is murdered and the search for his murderer is an afterthought in the search for Harper, until the author draws Kevin into the investigation in the end.

But by then it’s obvious he’s a square peg in a round hole, and I found myself wanting more focus on him, on what he’s going through instead of more of Jojo musing about Harper, how much she wants to find her, how beautiful and luminous and perfectly perfect she is and how much she loves her. I understand why that was there, but when faced with CapB, the implications of a corrupt police department and the focus on Kevin as a suspect, I feel like there’s so much that could have been included had the focus been on Kevin and not everyone and how much they wanted to find Harper. 

There was a hint of something more to be explored with the book dives into what Laurie did to a suspect that links her back to the CapB movement and the violence of police against suspects, and as she is bringing up a biracial child of two cops, those themes should have resonated more than they did. But bc the CapB storyline isn’t as fully integrated into the story, I thought much of this wasn’t enough. And it was infinitely more interesting than Jojo musing about how perfect Harper is. Again.

When Kevin began to be included more in the narrative, the book became more starkly uneven, and it showed how much the CapB storyline was lacking. In the end, there are tentative links to the Harper’s disappearance, but honestly, it felt tacked on again — like much of the racism themes in this.

In the end, for all it’s important themes, this is at heart this is a fairly straightforward mystery, with some gorgeous intense characterisation, but that came at the expense of important themes. 

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