Published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books on August 2, 2016
The More They Disappear is a surprisingly good debut literary thriller. The prose is smooth, the characters are complex, and the themes of corruption and family discord are strong. The story moves quickly enough but it doesn’t rush to a conclusion. Jesse Donaldson takes the time to establish a time and place (small town Kentucky, late 90s) and he avoids reliance on dominant thriller clichés about heroes and villains that fail to reflect the real world.
Sheriff Lew Mattock considered himself the president of Marathon, Kentucky. His assassination by Mary Jane Finley puT an end to his ambitions, while handing the job of Sheriff to his ill-equipped chief deputy, Harlan Dupee. Mary Jane isn’t a likely assassin, but she is insecure and easily manipulated by the promise of love.
So begins The More They Disappear. We soon learn about Mary Jane’s lover -- a drug dealer named Mark -- and Mark’s physician-father, who is also his drug supplier. We also learn about Lew’s financial problems and the debt he left his widow. And then we learn about some surprising relationships among key characters in a plot that becomes increasingly complex as the novel moves forward.
As if poor Harlan didn’t have enough problems, the doctor has persuaded Lew Mattock’s son to run for the vacant sheriff’s position. Like several other characters, the kid does what he’s told, but isn’t happy about it. He doesn’t think he has much choice, since he’s married to the doctor’s daughter.
Characters are imagined in greater depth than is common for a thriller, particularly Mary Jane, whose alienation and loneliness is rendered in convincing detail. Harlan is my kind of cop. He smokes dope to relax and drinks a beer while he’s driving home (Harlan is not a guy to sweat the small stuff), but he struggles to do the right thing, or to understand how justice is best served in a morally ambiguous world. He has his own demons to face but he tries to put them aside while focusing on the needs of others.
The More They Disappear has something to say about the importance and difficulty of being who you want to be, even if your parents tried to shape you into a different person. But apart from its important themes (including small town poverty and loneliness and the lure of drugs), The More They Disappear is just an enjoyable reading experience. It isn’t a thriller that will appeal to people who are looking for rapidly building suspense and surprise endings delivered in lots of single sentence paragraphs. It is instead a book for readers who are looking for higher quality story telling than most modern crime fiction delivers. If he keeps writing books like this one, Donaldson will earn a devoted following.