An interesting comment exchange with Rebecca at Ms. Wordopolis Reads has got me thinking about fictional missing people. Before I explain, let me give you a moment to go visit Rebecca’s terrific blog and follow it if you’re not already doing so. It’s well worth reading.
Right. About missing people. Rebecca made the well-taken point that it’s difficult to feature a missing person in a plot. On the one hand, the author wants to ‘hook’ the reader so there has to be some information about the person who’s disappeared. On the other, giving away too much at once can spoil the story and take away the suspense that keeps the reader engaged. When it’s done well, though, and the author integrates ways to keep up the tension, a story that includes the missing person motif can be compelling.
For example, Ruth Rendell’s Simisola begins with Dr. Raymond Akande and his wife realising that their twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie is missing. Akande asks DCI Reg Wexford, one of his patients, to look into the matter. At first Wexford isn’t overly concerned. Melanie is, after all, a young adult who could have any of a number of reasons for not coming home for a few days. But when more time goes by and she doesn’t return, Wexford begins to ask some questions. It turns out that she was last seen right after an appointment with a job counselor at the local employment bureau. So Wexford and the team start the investigation there. Shortly afterwards, Annette Bystock, Melanie’s contact at the bureau, is found murdered. Then the body of a young woman is found in a local wood. At firstWexford is sure it’s Melanie’s body. When it turns out not to be, Wexford and his team are faced with two murders and a disappearance. In this novel, the tension is maintained as the various threads of the story come together. There’s added tension too because the team is working on more than one case.
The same is true in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In that novel, Mma. Precious Ramotswe has just opened her own detective agency. She’s breaking into the business so to speak when she gets a letter from schoolteacher Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. Mma. Ramotswe is particularly distressed by this case and it doesn’t help matters that the boy’s disappearance may well have to do with local witchcraft. That’s a politically very sensitive issue and the people involved in it have a certain amount of power so Mma Ramotswe is not looking forward to what she may find out. That possibility adds to the interest in this case, as does the Botswana setting and the characters. It also adds to the tension that the missing person here is a child.
In Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, the missing person is Connor Crawford, who with his wife Suzanne owned a Sydney nursery. One night, Suzanne Crawford is murdered and her husband disappears. One likely possibility is that her husband is the murderer. They had argued violently and it’s discovered that Connor had been keeping a secret that his wife was desperate to find out. But of course that’s not the only possibility. Things turn out to be more complicated than that as police detective Ella Marconi and her team soon discover. And when there’s another disappearance, it’s clear that something much more than the tragic end to a domestic dispute is going on. Many, if not all, of the answers in this case depend on finding Connor Crawford. If he’s innocent, he may be in grave danger. And even if he’s not in danger he may be able to provide helpful information that would tie everything together. If he’s guilty, the team will have solved the case. The fact that Connor Crawford and the secret he is keeping are critical adds to the suspense in this story.
Anthony Bidulka takes a different approach to building suspense in Amuse Bouche. In that novel, wealthy entrepreneur Harold Chavell is heartbroken and worried because his fiancé Tom Osborn disappeared right before their wedding. He believes that Osborn has gone alone on their planned honeymoon trip to France, and he wants Quant to follow their itinerary and locate Osborn. Quant agrees and begins to track Osborn through the various stops he and Chavell had planned. The tension is raised when Quant gets a note saying that Osborn doesn’t want to be found. Chavell decides to give up his search and Quant returns to Saskatoon. That’s when Osborn’s body is discovered in a local lake. When Chavell is accused of having murdered his fiancé, he asks Quant to find out the truth and clear his name. In this story Bidulka keeps the tension and suspense strong by the timing of the events and by adding the unexpected in a few places.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) also depicts a search for a missing person, made all the more frantic by the fact that the person who’s disappeared could be in real danger. Carl Mørck is returning to work as a Copenhagen homicide detective after recovering from a line-of-duty injury. Even at his best Mørck is not exactly a pleasant, outgoing person and now he’s dealing with the trauma of what happened when he was shot. He soon becomes so difficult to work with that he’s ‘promoted’ to Department Q, which is set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ Mostly the department is a politically-motivated response to media concern that the police aren’t doing enough to solve certain cases. Mørck knows this but he takes the job and prepares to do as little as he can get away with doing. Then one case gets his attention: the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She went missing during a ferry trip and it was always believed that she went overboard in a tragic accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest that she may still be alive. That possibility and the chance that she could be in grave danger if she is alive add to the suspense in this novel.
In Surrender, Donna Malane introduces us to missing person expert Diane Rowe, who sometimes works with the Wellington police. What’s interesting about this novel is that it follows the case of a missing person almost backwards if I could put it that way. Instead of a friend or loved one discovering that someone is missing and then frantically searching (or having the police do so), this novel starts with the discovery of the headless remains of a ‘John Doe’ found in Rimutaka State Forest. Rowe is hired by Inspector Frank McFay to try to identify the remains. So she works with pathologist reports, interviews people and does her own research as she tries to discover who the dead man was. The suspense in this novel is built up in several ways. One of them is that the novel doesn’t just concentrate on the more routine work involved in matching unidentified remains with the right missing person. There are also trips into the Rimutaka State Forest, interesting discoveries, a cryptic message and even some important clues from a boot manufacturer. There is also the fact that Rowe is trying to find out the truth about the murder of her sister Niki, who was murdered a year earlier. In this novel, the pace adds to the level of interest. So does the slow revealing of the person who was ‘John Doe.’
Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money takes place mostly in Cambodia, where Australian former cop Max Quinlan travels to find Charles Avery. Quinlan’s been hired by Avery’s sister Madeleine mostly because he has a talent for finding people who don’t want to be found. Quinlan starts at Avery’s last-known address in Bangkok but when he discovers the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee in that apartment, he knows that this is going to be a complicated case. He follows up on clues he’s found and goes on to Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail once more. He soon learns that some very powerful and brutal people do not want him to find out what happened to Avery and where he is. Still, he continues to look for answers. He and journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin follow up on every lead they can and in the end, they trace Avery’s whereabouts and they find out the truth about him. In this novel, the pace, the slow reveal about what Avery was really doing in Cambodia, and the action keep the suspense strong.
Building a plot, even in part, around a missing person is a challenge. Reveal too much and you spoil the story. On the other hand, make the pace too slow and the reader disengages, especially if the missing person isn’t depicted in an interesting way. But the ‘missing person’ theme can be compelling when the author adds solid characterisation, a solid amount of action and suspense, and enough plot ‘meat’ to keep the reader absorbed. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ I Call Your Name.