Working out of her jewel box of an apartment at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, Celine has made a career of tracking down missing persons, and she has a better record at it than the FBI. But when a young woman, Gabriela, asks for her help, a world of mystery and sorrow opens up. Gabriela's father was a photographer who went missing on the border of Montana and Wyoming. He was assumed to have died from a grizzly mauling, but his body was never found. Now, as Celine and her partner head to Yellowstone National Park, investigating a trail gone cold, it becomes clear that they are being followed--that this is a case someone desperately wants to keep closed. Inspired by the life of Heller's own remarkable mother, a chic and iconoclastic private eye, Celine is a deeply personal novel, a wildly engrossing story of family, privilege, and childhood loss. Combining the exquisite plotting and gorgeous evocation of nature that have become his hallmarks, Peter Heller gives us his finest work to date.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2017-02-27
- Reviewer: Staff
Despite its intriguing premise, Hellers (The Dog Stars) third novel is a missing persons mystery that never quite finds its mark. Celine, descended from the original governors of the Plymouth Colony, is a well-heeled investigator, the Prada PI, whose age (68) is still well below her success rate (96%). Gabriela hires her to look into the disappearance of Gabrielas father, a famous nature photographer who years ago was presumed dead after a grizzly attack just outside of Yellowstone National Park. Agreeing with Gabriela that the death appeared staged, Celine and her husband, Pete, retired and almost as resourceful as his wife, head out West. The plucky Celine has her charms, but other characters, such as Elbie Chicksaw, the Montana tracker who studied comparative literature at Dartmouth, ring false, as does some of the dialogue: You sound like that Neruda poem I love so. The case slowly breaks open, but long flashbacks to Celines uber-WASPy childhood summers on Fishers Island, N.Y., sap the narrative of momentum, as does a subplot involving Celines son, who embarks on an missing persons investigation of his own in New England. The majesties and dangers of Yellowstone supply a compelling backdrop against which to set a story about how easily parents can disappear and families fall apart, and Heller, a gifted nature writer as well as novelist, handles certain set pieces well. But too often the novel seems lost in the wilderness. 100,000-copy announced first printing. (Mar.)
An unexpected detective
Celine is nearly 70. She’s an elegant woman with an excellent education and a mastery of her native French. She enjoys a quiet life with her husband, Pete—he cooks, she sculpts. Sometimes she calls her grown son on the phone and mildly lectures him about his love life. Oh, and Celine is also a private detective, once recruited by the FBI, and she occasionally takes a case that requires her and Pete to pack up their tracking equipment and cameras and take off across the globe to solve a mystery that’s been alluding traditional law enforcement. In those cases, Celine’s weapons training comes in handy.
The mystery at the heart of this story revolves around a young woman, Gabriela, whose father, a charismatic and complicated nature photographer, disappeared mysteriously when she was young. When Celine and Pete take her case, they find themselves traveling to Yellowstone National Park. They dress like hunters and frequent small diners, talking to locals and trying to unravel a case that’s long since been declared closed, inadvertently triggering the attention of powerful people who want to keep it that way.
In Celine, author Peter Heller tells an excellent story and creates a mystery that’s gripping and ultimately satisfying. He’s a master at describing the wonder and beauty of the natural world and at making setting and community an integral part of his stories. But even more noteworthy is his understanding of human frailties and the triumph of family relationships—Celine’s relationships with both Pete and her son are flawed but still loving and beautiful, and her relationship to herself as she ages is honest, illuminating and, ultimately, inspiring.
Celine is packed with details—there are bear attacks, a gold-digging nurse, an emphysemic sharpshooter and senior citizens who live in a camper van—but every bit feels authentic and true. All the elements move the story along; for the reader, nothing is wasted and every moment is made to be savored and enjoyed.