Book Review: The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman

Title: The Cold Vanish

Author: Jon Billman

Blurb: These are the stories that defy conventional logic. The proverbial vanished without a trace incidences, which happen a lot more (and a lot closer to your backyard) than almost anyone thinks. These are the missing whose situations are the hardest on loved ones left behind. The cases that are an embarrassment for park superintendents, rangers and law enforcement charged with Search & Rescue. The ones that baffle the volunteers who comb the mountains, woods and badlands. The stories that should give you pause every time you venture outdoors.

Through Jacob Gray’s disappearance in Olympic National Park, and his father Randy Gray who left his life to search for him, we will learn about what happens when someone goes missing. Braided around the core will be the stories of the characters who fill the vacuum created by a vanished human being. We’ll meet eccentric bloodhound-handler Duff and R.C., his flagship purebred, who began trailing with the family dog after his brother vanished in the San Gabriel Mountains. And there’s Michael Neiger North America’s foremost backcountry Search & Rescue expert and self-described “bushman” obsessed with missing persons. And top researcher of persons missing on public wildlands Ex-San Jose, California detective David Paulides who is also one of the world’s foremost Bigfoot researchers.

It’s a tricky thing to write about missing persons because the story is the absence of someone. A void. The person at the heart of the story is thinner than a smoke ring, invisible as someone else’s memory. The bones you dig up are most often metaphorical. While much of the book will embrace memory and faulty memory—history—The Cold Vanish is at its core a story of now and tomorrow. Someone will vanish in the wild tomorrow. These are the people who will go looking.

My Thoughts

I’m always a sucker for books about mysterious disappearances and other unsolved mysteries, so The Cold Vanish seemed right up my alley. But while the book definitely provided me with some insight into a variety of missing persons cases that have taken place in America’s national forests and parks over the past several years, I felt that it left a little to be desired when it came to constructing a compelling narrative.

The book largely focuses on the relatively recent disappearance of Jacob Gray, who went missing in Olympic National Park, leaving behind his bicycle and a bunch of supplies. Interspersed with bits and pieces of the search for Jacob, which went on for more than a year before he was found deceased, the author slips in stories of other disappearances (and deaths) in various parks or forests for which there are no straightforward or simple explanations.

On the one hand, I enjoyed learning about all these cases, none of which I’d heard of before. I also enjoyed reading about the difficulty surrounding the logistics of searching for missing people in the country’s sprawling national parks and forests, and the jurisdictional issues that further complicate those logistics. I’ve read plenty of stories about people who’ve gone missing in the suburbs and cities, but I’ve read very little about the people who’ve gone missing in the wilderness, so I appreciated the insight provided by The Cold Vanish.

That said, I found the overall structure of the book a bit too convoluted for my taste. The narrative somewhat awkwardly splices together pieces about the search for Jacob with passages about other missing people, searches that the author participated in personally, and conversations with various people about search techniques and the unique difficulties of searching in the forest and park terrain.

In some chapters, this made the narrative so disjointed that I had trouble following along; I would get engrossed in a passage about one topic, and then suddenly the book would switch back to a different topic that involved totally different people. And there were so many people (i.e. so many names) to keep track of, that I would sometimes have to flip back several pages, or even chapters, to remind myself who exactly somebody was and why they were important.

In conclusion, while The Cold Vanish gave me an in-depth look into the odd disappearance of Jacob Gray, and touched on many other similarly strange cases I’d never heard of before—which I enjoyed—I think the way that the information is presented throughout could be reorganized and simplified to create a better overall reading experience.

Rating: 3/5

Thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for providing me with an eARC of The Cold Vanish.

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