In The Stolen Ones, the last entry in his excellent series featuring Carla Windermere of the F.B.I. and Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota BCA, Owen Laukkanen wove a tense thriller around the issue of sex-trafficking. In this, the fifth book in the series, the story centers on another very timely problem, the bullying of teenagers.
The story opens when Stevens's daughter, Andrea, urges her father to look into the suicide of one of her high school classmates. Stevens initially assumes that, while the teenager's death was certainly tragic, there was nothing criminal about it. The victim, Adrian Miller, was a lonely boy without any real friends. He was repeatedly harassed and embarrassed by the school jocks and others, and ultimately responded by taking his own life.
But then Andrea appears at her father's office with another teenager in tow. The boy, whose name is Lucas, tells Stevens and Windermere that Adrian had an online "friend," a girl who encourage him to take his own life and to record it on his webcam so that she could watch. Lucas says that the two had formed a suicide pact and that the girl intends to follow Lucas over to the "other side."
Even though there may not be a crime involved, a young girl's life is in danger, assuming that she hasn't already killed herself. Stevens and Windermere spring into action in an effort to find the girl. They confiscate Adrian Miller's computer and begin rooting through his online history in an effort to discover the girl's identity. The effort is especially urgent for Carla Windermere who is carrying some baggage of her own with respect to the issue of teenage bullying and who is determined to save this girl at any cost.
Without much trouble, they discover that the girl's name is Ashley Frey and they follow the haunting thread of the conversations between Adrian and Ashley up to the moment when Adrian records himself committing suicide. But the effort to find Ashley takes a very disturbing turn when the agents discover that "Ashley Frey" is really not a teenage girl planning to take her own life but rather a disturbed psychopath who is trolling the internet, recruiting depressed teenagers, and encouraging them to commit suicide while he watches. Stevens and Windermere are thus launched into a desperate race to identify and capture this predator before he can convince any additional victims to end their lives.
This is the darkest and most compelling book in the series thus far. Save for Andrea, who gets the story off and running, we see nothing of Stevens's family, the members of which have appeared prominently in each of the earlier books. The sexual tension between Stevens and Windermere that characterized the earlier books has also disappeared, and the novel remains tightly focused on the investigation at hand. The tension builds page after page before reaching a stunning climax that is likely to leave most any reader holding his or her breath for the last ten or fifteen pages.
All in all, this is another great entry in a very good series, one which also highlights a very important current social problem. The next Stevens and Windermere novel can't come any too soon.