I’m not sure what got me interested in Missing Clarissa—whether it was the general description, the podcast element, or I just felt like taking a chance. Thrillers aren’t normally my genre of choice. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by Ripley Jones’s debut novel. It was darker than I expected yet also has plenty of light character moments. Thanks to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for the eARC.
Clarissa Campbell went missing in 1999. The cheerleading captain at Oreville High, Clarissa was in many ways a town darling. Yet even after nationwide coverage, no one turned up any trace of her—dead or alive. Now, over twenty years later, two students at Oreville High decide to make Clarissa the subject of their journalism project. Blair and Cameron start a true-crime podcast, Missing Clarissa. As you might expect, there are many in their small town that don’t want this mystery stirred up again. As Blair and Cameron dig deeper into Clarissa’s disappearance, they find that it’s one thing to talk about a mystery and another to actually solve it.
As I intimated above, I wasn’t expecting to be so engrossed with the narrative. There’s something about how Jones crafted this mystery, however, that kept me engaged. I like how, even as the book dangles an obvious culprit in front of us, it’s also clear that we’re not expected to believe this person is the true culprit—we are led to expect a twist, which is indeed forthcoming in the final act. Honestly, the way that our intrepid podcasters uncover the true identity of Clarissa’s assailant, and the action-packed climax that follows, was the least interesting part of the book for me. It’s the journey to that moment that had me hooked, especially when Blair and Cameron are investigating their various leads.
Jones’s writing reminds me of another Wednesday Books author, Courtney Summers. Missing Clarissa feels a little bit like Sadie, one of my favourite Summers novels. Both involve podcasts about missing girls whose fates are unknown. Both ruminate on how our society treats lost girls, how we romanticize them, how we give them more attention if they are white and pretty. Sadie is much darker than this book. However, Missing Clarissa still has its moments of asking hard questions about misogyny and patriarchy.
This is apparent in how Blair and Cameron interact with the many male characters. Blair and Cameron are well aware of how their age and gender might lead most adults, particularly men, to underestimate them. At times they exploit this to their benefit; sometimes it is more of an impediment than anything else. Jones also explores how the power and privilege that many men accumulate—especially in a small town like Oreville—mean that they can avoid the consequences of their past actions, even if those actions might have landed someone else in jail.
I also love the respective characterizations of Blair and Cameron, the way they play off each other as best friends and then also the romantic subplots each of them has. Blair’s delusions about her relationship are classic. Cameron’s obliviousness to Sophie’s interest in her is adorable. The way that the two of them support each other, even when they fight, makes for such a compelling duo—I would read more stories featuring these two. Jones writes with humour and empathy. Blair and Cameron are two very distinct personalities with sharply different voices, and it comes through. As a podcaster myself, I greatly enjoyed the running gag wherein other characters criticize the sound quality of their podcast!
While it has many rough edges—especially in regards to how rushed the ending seems to be—Missing Clarissa is that rare thriller that held my attention. I literally didn’t want to stop reading it. This is high praise from me. I recommend it for fans of mysteries set in small towns, as well as people who want to read about intrepid girls setting out to investigate the disappearance of another girl. It’s not true crime—which, fortunately for us, means we get the closure inherent in the ending.