I Need to Know*

WaitingIt’s devastating to hear the news that a loved one has died. Any crime fiction novel that doesn’t acknowledge that is, at least in my opinion, not portraying loss realistically. That said though, it’s possibly even harder when a loved one is missing. Not knowing whether that person is dead or alive takes a tremendous toll. You can’t start the grieving process really, because the missing person could still be alive. On the other hand, after a certain point, it’s hard to hold out hope. It’s a sort of ‘twilight zone’ and it is awful. Just a quick look at a few crime fiction novels should be enough to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the story of the stabbing death of American businessman Samuel Ratchett. He’s en route across Europe on the Orient Express when the murder occurs, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, so he investigates Ratchett’s death. One of the pieces of evidence refers to another case: the kidnapping of three-year-old Daisy Armstrong. She was the daughter of wealthy and loving parents, and her abduction took a terrible toll on her family. Part of that toll was waiting to hear from the kidnappers, and not knowing whether she was safe.

Dr. Raymond Akande and his wife Laurette go through a horrible experience of waiting in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Their twenty-two-year-old daughter Melanie goes to the local Employment Bureau one afternoon to keep an appointment with a job counselor there. When she doesn’t return, Akande gets concerned and asks Inspector Wexford, who is one of his patients, to look into the matter. At first Wexford isn’t overly concerned. Melanie is an adult and it’s not unreasonable that she’d have gone off for a few days without necessarily telling her parents. But when more time goes by, Wexford begins to wonder what’s happened to her and an official investigation begins. Melanie’s last known contact was Annette Bystock, an employment counselor. When Bystock herself is killed, it’s clear that something may be going on at the Employment Bureau. In the meantime, the Akandes are very anxious for any news, and Wexford is uncomfortable that he can’t give them any real information. Then, a body is found in a local wood, and Wexford thinks it might be Melanie’s. It’s not though, and we can see the Akandes’ anger at the mistaken identity. Some of that anger comes from the fact that they still do not have answers. In the end, Wexford and his team put the case together, but throughout the novel, he feels guilty about what the Akandes are suffering as they wait for the truth about Melanie.

DCI Harry Nelson has a similar burden in Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places. Ten years ago, Lucy Downing went missing. Nelson and his team have never been able to find out what happened to her. He’s never even been able to give her parents the admittedly ice-cold consolation of closure. Then, the skeleton of a young girl is discovered in a remote area of Norfolk called the Saltmarsh. Nelson doesn’t know how old the bones are, or whether they might be Lucy’s remains, so he gets help from an expert Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist at North Norfolk University. She determines the bones are much, much older – probably from the Iron Age. On the one hand, it’s exciting news for Galloway in that it opens up a promising site for a dig. On the other, Nelson is left with no new answers. Then he begins to get anonymous, cryptic letters that make a veiled reference to Scarlet Henderson, another young girl who’s gone missing recently. Nelson contacts Galloway again to see if she can help him make sense of the letters. In the end, Nelson does find out what happened both to Scarlet and to Lucy. And Griffiths shows what it’s like for families who are waiting for news – any news – about their loved ones.

One plot thread of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Hypothermia concerns a young man Davíd, who went missing thirty years earlier. Inspector Erlendur was one of the investigators, and he and his team were never able to find any trace of the young man. Davíd’s father still visits the police station once a year to see if there’s any news, but Erlendur has never been able to help him. This year, the old man says that he doesn’t have much longer to live and he wants to know what happened to his son before he dies. So Erlendur re-opens the case. He finds that a young woman named Gudrún disappeared at about the same time Davíd did, and begins to wonder whether the two cases were related. As Erlendur gets to the truth about these missing young people, we can see how difficult it’s been for their families not to know what happened to them – not to have answers.

That’s also true for Dorothy Pine, whom we meet in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow. Five months earlier, her thirteen-year-old daughter Katie disappeared after school one day. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police was on the team that investigated the disappearance, but they weren’t able to come up with any solid leads on Katie’s whereabouts. Dorothy calls in sometimes asking if there is any news about her daughter. But Cardinal is never able to give her any information. Then the body of a young girl is found in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. When it turns out to be Katie’s body, Cardinal has the thankless job of informing her mother. Dorothy now has the closure that she wanted but of course, that’s little comfort. Still, she is willing to help Cardinal find out who killed Katie. So she gives him as much information as she can and there’s a poignant scene in which he goes through Katie’s things. It shows how very hard the wait has been for her mother. Eventually Cardinal and his partner Lise Delorme are able to tie in Katie’s death with the disappearances of other young people.

It’s not always family members, either, who want answers and therefore, some closure. In Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client. Brothel owner Candace Curtis is worried about one of her employees Mary Carmen Santamaria, who seems to have gone missing. Of course it’s possible that the young woman simply decided to leave, but Curtis doesn’t think that’s what happened. And she really is worried about Santamaria, since in that line of work, a lot of things can go wrong. Jackson agrees to take the case and begins to ask questions. It turns out that Curtis was right to be concerned; Jackson’s search for answers takes her into the seamier side of Toronto’s sex trade, and into some ugly truths about human trafficking. As Curtis does her best to help Jackson, we can sense how difficult it is for her not to know what’s happened to ‘one of her girls.’

It’s awful, truly awful, to learn that someone you care about has been killed. But a lot of people would say that it’s worse not to know. I’ve only included a few examples here. Which gaps have I left?


On Another Note


Malaysia Airlines Plane


This post is dedicated to the families and friends of those lost on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  My thoughts and wishes go out to them as they go through the grieving process and wait for answers. I hope that all the answers come soon.




*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Tom Petty song.




Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Elly Griffiths, Giles Blunt, Jill Edmondson, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “I Need to Know*

  1. Cynthia Bigge, in No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay, spends 25 difficult years wondering how her parents and brother disappeared from their family home one night when she was 14 and asleep.

  2. In Mercy, by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a young woman politician was abducted five years ago, and the sadness and sorrow of that rings throughout the book. In fact we know what happened to her (to some degree), but the other characters do not.

    • Moira – That’s quite true. And that particular novel is a strong example of how waiting and wondering has affected, especially, Merete Lynnggard’s brother. Very moving in my opinion. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  3. I remember the beginning of Anthony Berkeley’s “The Silk Stocking Murders.” His amateur detective, Roger Sheringham, becomes involved in the case of a young woman’s disappearance when he receives a painful letter from the missing woman’s father asking him to investigate. No matter how painful the ultimate revelation, there’s little doubt that the victims of such crimes want and need closure. Another thought-provoking post, Margot. Thanks.

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. And you’re absolutely right about the need for closure. Families and friends want answers. Even the saddest answer, so long as it is truthful, is better than not knowing. And you’ve added an excellent example of what I had in mind too. Thanks.

  4. Very true – and one of the saddest aspects of crime fiction (and reality, of course).

  5. Donna

    In The Various Haunts of Men, by Susan Hill, several people (and even a dog) go missing over a period of time as detectives struggle to figure out what happened to these people and how the disappearances are related. Friends and neighbors can’t bear to think that their loved ones won’t return; they live in a state of limbo until the case is solved.

    • Donna – I’ll confess that’s one I’ve not read. But I’ve heard good things about it, and it’s certainly a perfect example of the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. Thanks for adding it.

  6. I can’t believe I’ve actually read three of the books you’ve listed Margot! I’m feeling rather pleased with myself tonight 🙂

    • Rebecca – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’ll bet you’ve read a library full of books I’ve not read. That’s the way it is; there’s far too much good crime fiction out there to read it all.

  7. kathy d.

    I’ll add my sympathy to your post for the families of the victims of the Malaysian flight that vanished. I don’t blame them for being very angry about the way they have been treated. I’d imagine lawsuits are being filed now against the airlines and the Malaysian government.
    The most important aspect of this sad disaster is not only finding out what happened to the passengers, but treating the families with respect, concern and sensitivity.
    There are very good examples here of disappearances of family members, with no closure. This can make for an excellent plot, as in Mercy and No Time for Goodbye — and so many other books. Sometimes a character can reappear years later.
    A very good detective story plot device, not a good situation in real life, terrible for loved ones who are waiting.

    • Kathy – I don’t blame the families of those on the missing flight for their anger either. I can’t imagine how I’d feel under the same circumstances. And you’re right; it’s so important to treat loved ones with sensitivity and respect. They deserve to know the truth about what happened. Even if the answer is a truthful, ‘We don’t know, but we are doing ______, _______ and ______ to find out’ that’s better than not knowing at all. At least it’s honest. I sincerely hope that there are real answers soon.
      You’re right too that the plot point of a missing family member can be very effective in crime fiction if it’s done well. That feeling of not knowing adds such a layer to a story, and it’s realistic. So is the sense of duty to find answers for family members.

  8. The disappearance of the Malaysian flight must have been a nightmare for family members. I can’t even imagine the pain involved in waiting and not knowing.

  9. The pain of never knowing is one I cannot even start to comprehend. And it is a recurring theme in crime fiction, isn’t it? There are at least two Alan Banks books where a person just goes missing for years, leaving parents to keep wondering what happened.

    • Natasha – I’m glad you brought up Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks. There are indeed a couple of books in that series where people just disappear, and I think Robinson handles it very effectively. He shows the devastating effect on family members, etc. And it has to be an absolute nightmare for loved ones.

  10. This is a topic that crime fiction so rarely handles well frankly but glad you plucked some goo ones Margot – maybe it’s just too sad or difficult for any genre work to really deal with?

    • Sergio – I think you have something there. It is a terribly painful and difficult topic. So it’s not surprising that authors find it difficult to address. I know I would. Still, there are some good ones out there.

  11. Col

    I’ve 2 of the mentioned books on the stack – Blunt and Indridason – nudged closer to the top of the pile now!

  12. Sue Grafton has used the missing person theme to good effect in at least two novels: U is for Undertow (a child kidnapped twenty years ago) and S is for Silence (woman disappeared thirty-five years ago).

  13. Some great examples here, Margot. I have either read or want to read all of the books you mentioned in your post.

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