Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

MissingPeopleSome 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).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Malane, Karin Fossum, Peter James, Peter Robinson

40 responses to “Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

  1. Re-followed and now your posts show. Oh, happy day!

  2. I like your title for this blog, a very telling, and “poetic” title.

    *Third Girl* is my choice. So many of those Poirot stories are much better as a VISUAL READ. I like being able to SEE those “little gray cells” in action! [?]

  3. Cases of missing people are perhaps even more intriguing than corpses – because there are more possible explanations for what may have happened. Great subject, Margot!

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I think they can also be a lot harder for the families involved. As horrible as a murder is, at least you have some concrete answers a lot of times…

  4. I love a book that starts with a missing person – there are so many possibilities – missing, or dead, or not who you think they are, or just gone off on a bender. I very much enjoyed Marian Keyes Mystery of Mercy Close last year – PI Helen Walsh is hired to find the missing member of a boy band, but when she starts looking all kinds of things turn up… It’s a classic of the genre, with a surprising ultimate explanation.

  5. Hi Margot! The one I read most recently is called Doctor Lovebeads, and it’s one of the Gary Reilly books published posthumously. The series features Murph, the Denver cab driver. In this one, a couple of hippie wanna-be girls have disappeared and were last seen in Murph’s cab. He dons a disguise and weasels his way into a hippie-style commune to find the girls. This whole series is so much fun and the mysteries are entertaining.

    • Pat – Thanks for that! I’d heard of that series but hadn’t (yet) tried it. And you know, a cabbie is a great protagonist for a series. They see all kinds of things…

  6. The Chill by Ross MacDonald springs to mind. A young newlywed hires private detective Lew Archer to find his bride. There are a couple of Ross MacDonald novels that start in a similar fashion and they work pretty well. Of course, the initial missing person case ends up being a whole lot more.

  7. Check out http://suspenseandmystery.blogspot.com/2011/03/bombshell-by-carter-brown.html Police Lt Al Wheeler must find a beautiful blonde killer when he is not even sure she’s a corpse

  8. Margot – Have you read Dying For Christmas by Tammy (Tamar) Cohen – which fits nicely with your theme today.

  9. One of my all-time favorite Arthur Upfield mysteries is “Man of Two Tribes.” DI Napoleon Bonaparte is sent to find out what happened to a woman named Myra Thomas who vanished from a train crossing the vast Australian wasteland called the Nullarbor Plain. Bony tracks her across hundreds of miles of hostile territory. And when he does find out what happened to her, he finds several other “missing” people – one of whom has just committed a murder – and must lead them on foot across those hundreds of miles to safety. It’s a wonderful book.

    • Les – Oh, that’s a great choice. Trust you to think of a good ‘Bony’ mystery that fits this theme. I actually need to re-visit that one, as it has been a very, very…. long time.

  10. Margot: In addition to Anthony there are a couple of “missing” mysteries by Canadian authors that I have found memorable.

    In No Time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay a teenage girl, Cynthia Bigge awakes to find her parents and brother have disappeared from their home while she was asleep. The search resumes 25 years later.

    Armand Gamache in the latest Louise Penny mystery, The Long Way Home, helps Clara Morrow search for her husband, Peter, who has not returned home after a planned year separation. The investigation is emotional, sometimes poignant, and compelling.

    • Bill – Those are both terrific examples of what I had in mind with this post, and I’m very glad you brought them up. I think Penny has done such a good job of developing her characters as the series has gone on. Folks, it’s an excellent series and I do recommend it. And I really like Linwood Barclay’s writing style very much.

  11. Hilary Waugh’s LAST SEEN WEARING is probably the classic early procedural on a missing person, combined with a campus setting. Colin Dexter reused the title for his own missing person story featuring INSPECTOR MORSE that is also a bit of a favourite. Great theme Margot.

    • Sergio – Thanks very much for the kind words and for reminding me of that excellent Colin Dexter story (the Waugh, too, for the matter of that). I’d thought about including it here, but then didn’t. I’m glad you did.

  12. Recently read “Vanished” by Kendra Elliot and enjoyed it. Was worried at first about the missing child theme, but it was handled well.

  13. Col

    I can think of a couple – Bill Pronzini’s TheVanished, where a soon to be discharged soldier disappears and leaves his fiancee wondering and Sam Wiebe’s Last of the Independents – where a child goes missing after his father’s car gets stolen.

  14. I think this is interesting in the context of wars where people can go MIA but the chaos of war also offers the perfect cover to disappear/pretend to be dead if that’s what the person wants to do.

  15. Hi Margot. Another great topic. I recall with pleasure an early Parker Spenser novel, Looking for Rachel Wallace, which as I remember per the title was about a journalist who had gone missing, or was kidnapped. Then there’s Agatha’s (in)famous missing- for- was it nine days(?) incident.

    Elizabeth’s mention of Vanished also made me think of the case of the poet Weldon Kees, who vanished mysteriously near the Golden Gate Brudge in 1955.

    Vicky’s comment brought to mind the cases where people vanish in wars and later reappear, but as an imposter pretending to be the person. I can think of a couple of examples, but I don’t want to be a spoiler …:-)

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. There are indeed some great examples of that ‘imposter’ thread. I’m grateful you and Vicky have brought that up. And yes, there is Agatha Christie’s disappearance. It certainly caused a scandal at the time. I hadn’t known about Weldon Kees, so thanks for the information; I ought to read up on it.

  16. An easy one for me this time. I recently read DOWN CEMETERY ROAD by Mick Herron. In that novel, a child disappears in the aftermath of a house explosion, and Sarah Tucker becomes obsessed with trying to find her. The problem is no one else seems to know or care that she is missing. So, not really a police detective looking for a missing person, but in the general area.

    • Tracy – Oh, yes, you’ve mentioned Down Cemetery Road, and I’ve planned to put that one on my list. As you say, not, strictly speaking, a professional detective. But you still see the way that people can just disappear without causing much of a fuss. Well, at least at first.

  17. I’m not sure about the plot of ‘Third Girl’ but I absolutely love Ariadne Oliver. One of my favourites in detective fiction.

    • Ariadne Oliver is a great character I think, Sarah. Just priceless! Although few people consider Third Girl Christie’s finest work, it really does give Mrs. Oliver a nice juicy role, which I like.

  18. Margot, were you aware that this post is on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Twitterific links? Time to watch your blog explode with visitors! Congrats!

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