Some of the hardest cases that professional detectives face concern missing persons. In part that’s because some people go missing because they want to leave. And even in modern times with modern technology, it can be difficult to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Besides, adults are legally allowed to go where they wish; in most cases it’s not a crime to go somewhere and not tell anyone. There’s also the fact that the police are reluctant to spend department resources on a case that has a perfectly logical explanation (e.g. someone simply wanted to spend a few days away). This means among other things that there may not be an immediate search for a person who’s gone missing. It also means that except in the case of children (a topic in its own right), professional detectives don’t always immediately devote the energy to a missing person report that they might to, say, a murder. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it’s that those cases are much more ‘slippery.’
In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But before she goes into any detail, she abruptly changes her mind, telling him that he’s too old to help her. She leaves without even giving her real name. With help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot establishes that the young woman is Norma Restarick, who shares a London flat with two other young women. Between them, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver visit both the flat and the Restarick family home. Norma’s flatmates make it clear that they really don’t keep tabs on her and that she’s probably either spending a few extra days with her family, or has gone off on a tryst. Certainly they’re not overly concerned about her. Norma’s father and stepmother say that she’s gone back to London, and that they don’t really follow everything she does there. They’re willing to admit that she’s had a difficult time with her family lately, but at the same time, they’re not afraid for her. Poirot begins to dig a little deeper. After all, if there was a murder and Norma committed it, she needs to be found. And even if that’s not true, she certainly seems troubled and may be in danger. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver continue to search for answers and in the end, they find out what happened to Norma. They also discover the truth behind the murder she says she may have committed.
In Peter Robinson’s Cold is the Grave, DCI Alan Banks gets an unusual request from his boss Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Riddle’s daughter Emily has had a bad relationship with her parents and has left home. She’s of legal age, so the police can’t look at it as a runaway case. But then her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic pictures of her online, and this frightens her parents. Riddle wants Banks to look for Emily, the idea being that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to this very private and difficult case. Riddle and Banks haven’t exactly had a good relationship in the past; in fact, it’s been more animosity than amity. But Banks is a father himself and he can understand Riddle’s concern. So he agrees to see what he can find out. His search for Emily takes him into some of London’s seamiest places – certainly places her parents wouldn’t have wanted her to be…
Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle concerns the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi becomes concerned when he doesn’t come home as he usually does, and she goes to the police to report him missing. At first the police aren’t very worried, and they do their best to reassure her that all is probably well. There are, after all, any number of reasons for which a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother about it. But when more time goes by and Andreas still doesn’t return, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer begins to suspect that something might have happened to him. So he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to investigate. One of their first stops is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp spent the day with him on the day he was last seen, and knows more than he is saying about what happened on that day. As Sejer and Skarre try to find out where Andreas Winther is and what happened to him, we see how difficult it is to look for an adult. Lots of people simply don’t worry about someone they haven’t seen lately. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You/The Indian Bride.
In Peter James’ Dead Simple, Ashley Harper contacts the police in the form of DI Glenn Branson. She’s worried because her fiancé Michael Harrison hasn’t been seen since his ‘stag night’ party. She doesn’t know what his friends were planning, and as it turns out, the police can’t ask them. Tragically, three of them were killed in a car crash and the fourth is in a coma. The only person who might know is Harrison’s best-man-to-be and business partner Mark Warren. But he was out of town and didn’t go out with the group. At first, Branson and his boss Superintendent Roy Grace think that Harrison might have changed his mind about the wedding and gone off. But by all accounts, he’s very much in love with his intended, and looking forward to the wedding. So the detectives dig a little deeper and soon find that Harrison might be in a great deal of danger. Now they’ll have to work as quickly as they can if they’re to have a chance of finding him.
Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche introduces readers to Sasktoon PI Russell Quant. As the story begins, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his fiancé Tom Osborn. According to Chavell, Osborn disappeared just before their planned wedding, and has gone alone on the honeymoon trip to France that they’d mapped out together. Quant wonders whether Osborn might simply have changed his mind about getting married, but he takes the case and travels to France. He goes to each place the couple had intended visiting, and finds some evidence that Osborn has been there recently and is fine. Then he gets a note saying that Osborn does not want to be found. When Chavell learns of this, he calls off the search and prepares to get on with his life. A short time later, Osborn’s body is found in a lake near a house the two owned. Now Chavell becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and asks Quant to help clear his name.
Not all police agencies are well-enough funded to have missing person departments. Some of them in fact hire missing person experts such as Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe. Rowe lives and works in Wellington, where she’s occasionally hired by the police to help search for people or match unknown remains to past reports of missing people. That’s what happens for instance in Surrender. In one plot thread of that novel, the remains of an unknown man are recovered from Rimutaka State Forest. Forensics evidence suggests the age (in his mid-to-late twenties) and the approximate time he disappeared (the mid-1970s), but nothing much else about him. So Rowe uses all of the resources at her disposal to trace the man’s identity and find out how and why he died. In My Brother’s Keeper, former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has custody of the girl, but Mackie has no idea where he’s living or if he’s even using the same name. Rowe agrees to find Justin and Sunny if she can. But this isn’t just a case of a mother who wants to be reunited with her daughter. The reason Mackie was in prison in the first place was the murder of her son and the attempted murder of Sunny…
Except for people on parole, adults are generally legally free to go where they wish without necessarily letting anyone else know. So missing persons cases are very often complicated. They can use up a lot of resources, including time, and don’t always result in a ‘joyful reunion.’ But they can make for suspenseful and interesting crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).