Book review: Celine by Peter Heller

Celine by Peter Heller
Celine by Peter Heller

In the suspenseful new detective novel Celine, bestselling American author Peter Heller creates a most unexpected heroine.

Celine Watkins, a sweet, frail, asthmatic private eye in her late sixties who specialises in finding missing persons and reuniting families, is totally unafraid of taking on biker gangs and US Navy SEAL snipers.

A French native who grew up in New York City, the well-educated, aristocratic Celine was once recruited by the FBI, is an expert at solving ‘very cold cases’ and can lay claim to a success rate of 96 percent, which is apparently significantly better than that of the FBI.

She is also a gun enthusiast and sharpshooter, with extensive training in firearms – a particularly useful skill in her line of work. Quick on the draw, cool under pressure, and a crack shot with a handgun or high-powered rifle, this silver-haired senior citizen is as lethal as the Glock she carries in her shoulder rig.

When Gabriela Ambrosio Lamont, a young woman with a tragic childhood, approaches Celine about finding her missing father, she unknowingly propels the determined PI on a remarkable journey, full of danger, conspiracy and international intrigue.

Gabriela’s Brazilian mother drowned on a family trip to Big Sur on Gabriela’s eighth birthday and her father, Paul Lamont, a ‘handsome and well-known National Geographic photographer’ with many iconic images to his name, never recovered from the tragic loss of his wife. Overwhelmed with loss and grief, he turned into ‘the saddest drunk.’

Later, Paul is trapped into marriage by a ‘man-eater’ who is jealous of his dead wife and the daughter who reminds him of her, and Gabriela moves into the downstairs apartment, living a lonely existence... until tragedy strikes again.

When Paul disappears on the border of Montana and Wyoming, while on assignment to Yellowstone National Park to document grizzly bears, it is believed that a bear killed him. A federal agent found the photographer’s shredded shirt and ‘a smear of Lamont’s blood’ on the bark of a fir tree, but no actual body.

The search and rescue operation lasts only ten days and, two months after his disappearance, Paul is declared dead. His daughter, listed in his will as his sole heir, inherits their apartment and immediately evicts her ‘mean’ stepmother.

Twenty-three years later, Gabriela is still not ready to accept the verdict regarding the fate of her father and, desperately wanting closure, seeks out Celine. Was her father truly mauled by a bear? Or did he want out of his marriage and his parental obligations so badly that he staged his own death and went underground? Another possibility is that he ‘may have been taken.’

Throughout the novel, we learn ‘how easily parents can disappear and families fall apart.’ Celine, who has also had a complicated childhood, ‘knows what it is like to be abandoned by a father.’ Having fallen pregnant at age fourteen and given away the child shortly after delivery, she is also well acquainted with sorrow and has devoted her life to reuniting birth families, often taking cases pro bono.

Naturally, this is the sort of case Celine cannot pass up. And so, aided by her well-organised, research-oriented husband Pete, the resourceful, elderly couple head out to Wyoming to glean what they can from the locals who knew Paul Lamont and the law-enforcement officials familiar with the case.

As they retrace the famous photographer’s last known steps, unravelling lies and uncovering dark secrets along the way, they find themselves in decidedly hazardous territory. Soon, they are dodging bullets in Yellowstone National Park and trying to piece together an extraordinary mystery that leads all the way to the highest echelons of power.

Full of suspense, vivid descriptions of the landscape and the wildlife, and deeply moving passages concerning ‘the hapless and addicted, the forlorn, the remorseful,’ and ‘the broken,’ Celine is an eloquent, exciting, and ultimately uplifting novel with a fabulous, uniquely imagined female protagonist.

(Knopf, hardback, £21.00)