It’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
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.