Kentucky OxyContin mystery: ‘The More They Disappear’ a distinctly Bluegrass thriller

Just as you’re settling in with the amiably corrupt and sloppy sheriff Lew Mattock, he falls slap dead into a barbecue grill.

In Jesse Donaldson’s new novel, “The More They Disappear” (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99) Mattock has been shot, and the shooter is accurate but not especially brilliant and also hopped up on a cocktail of drugs. She’ll also leave DNA evidence at the scene.

Donaldson said the book’s abrupt shift away from Lew Mattock is purposely jarring: “Let’s see who he is right in those moments before he died. I just was interested in seeing the small moments in his life ... seeing this guy at his height.”

Don’t worry that you won’t hear about Mattock again: In some ways, he’s more catastrophic as a dead person than he was alive.

So the reader knows almost from the beginning “whodunnit”: the well-born but sweetly directionless addict Mary Jane. It’s why she did it that is complicated, layered so deeply that the murderer herself begins to grasp all the implications only at the end of the book. That’s when the story takes a jaw-dropping twist, for the reader and for Mary Jane.

Most people in “The More They Disappear,” which is in stores Tuesday, are strung out on something, be it OxyContin or alcohol or gambling or a particularly lurid affair.

“You get little bits and pieces of each person’s story as you bound around from each person’s point of view,” — their moves, characters and relationships, Donaldson said.

The novelist was born in Lexington and grew up in Chevy Chase, attending Cassidy Elementary, Morton Middle and Henry Clay High schools before going to Ohio to attend Kenyon College. His father was a bloodstock agent, his mother a social worker.

Donaldson, 36, now lives with his wife, poet and translator Rebecca Wadlinger, and their young daughter in Portland, Ore.

Between the time he left Lexington and later settled in Portland, Donaldson taught English in Costa Rica, lived briefly in New York and Texas, and taught for a few months at Eastern Kentucky University.

He sees himself as a Kentuckian, but Donaldson has put down roots in Portland: “We had a kid, that’s what changed, ... and this last year we bought a house in Portland. Having a kid changed me from ‘my life is in Kentucky’ to ‘I’m buying a house for this person to have a life in Portland.’”

Donaldson sets “The More They Disappear” in a small river town, what he describes as a mini version of Maysville. One sequence takes place in Lexington — hello, Tolly Ho Restaurant! — and around the University of Kentucky.

“I didn’t want to set it in Eastern Kentucky,” Donaldson said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about the region. ... I wanted a town that had a series of different classes, rich people and people living just above the poverty line. It was important to me to set it somewhere where it was not just hillbillies doing drugs.”

Mattock’s replacement is the honest but not widely respected deputy Harlan Dupee (it’s pronounced du-PAY), who is haunted by the death of his girlfriend. DupeeHarlan lives in such squalor that you might think twice about a law enforcement career — his house is near a particularly sleazy trailer park — and three times after the reading of Mattock’s will, in which he leaves his wife practically destitute.

It’s left to Dupee to sort out the layers of criminal activity in the community, which includes a particularly vile pill-mill doctor.

Donaldson thinks that’s the story of the late 1990s and early 2000s: the rise of the pill mill doctors just around the corner from the addicts they supplied. Eventually, registries and increased government scrutiny put them out of business — but by that time many of the pill mill doctors had cleared a tidy sum and addicts switched to cheaper, and even more dangerous, heroin spiked with fentanyl.

While writing the book, Donaldson spent time in Maysville and learned the rhythms of small-town law enforcement.

Donaldson also considered a different ending for Mary Jane, who, as wrong-headed and destructive as she is, seems to have potential for redemption. (Slight spoiler: Things don’t end well for Mary Jane, being that she is a killer and all.)

“My mother hates her, the character,” Donaldson said. “I think she’s naïve and she makes a lot of bad decisions. ... She’s very bad at dealing with reality and very bad with making a plan.”

Donaldson said “The More They Disappear” leads up to Kentucky’s heroin problem today.

“What’s happening in my book ... is the creation of a lot of addicts who will get into heroin,” Donaldson said. “The (OxyContin) void is being filled with heroin.”

If you go

Jesse Donaldson

What: Reading and signing “The More They Disappear”

Where: Morris Book Shop, 882 East High St.

When: 6 p.m. Aug. 16


Phone: 859-276-0494


From “The More They Disappear” by Jesse Donaldson: Mary Jane, hopped up on Xanax and Adderall, prepares to shoot:

“She snorted the last of the pill dust and let her thoughts about the future dissolve and turn to smoke, let her fears drift away and fall into an abyss. She was patiently numb to consequences — her mind focused by one pill, her doubts erased by another. The shot was a touch under two hundred yards and it was quiet along the Ohio.

“She peered through the scope and found Lew. Oblivious. Flipping meat at the grill. She drew a deep breath and aimed the rifle at his chest, let the world come into focus and thought of nothing but the pressure against the tips of two fingers. When she exhaled, she drew those fingers toward her heart and the rifle kicked.”