Saturday, February 13, 2010

Into Thin Air...

Many mystery novels are centered on a murder or a group of murders. A body is found, the sleuth investigates and the criminal is discovered. Sometimes, though, the crime’s not that straightforward. There are many cases, both in real life and in crime fiction, where a person simply seems to disappear. Disappearances are, in many ways, much more complicated to investigate than are murders where the body is found promptly. In that sense, disappearances can add much to the interest in a story, and can keep the reader engaged.

One reason that disappearances are more complicated is that when someone disappears, it’s not always clear that there’s been a crime. Sometimes, people “disappear” by choice. If there’s no evidence of violence, there’s no evidence that a crime has been committed, even if the police believe that there’s been a murder. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth, in which DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate what happened to Emma Bestwick. Emma had disappeared from the village of Coniston 10 years earlier. Since she never returned and her body was never found, the police couldn’t really investigate her disappearance as a murder. Then, con man Guy Koenig happens to read an article about the Bestwick case. He tells Tony di Venuto, the journalist who wrote the article, that Emma is dead and won’t return. It’s not until Koenig reveals where Emma’s body is that the police are able to really begin to investigate the case as a murder.

There’s also a disappearance in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling death of Marlene Tucker, a young Girl Guide, while she’s playing a part at a fête. Marlene was chosen to play the role of the Victim in a Murder Hunt game, a sort of scavenger hunt designed by Christie’s fictional author, Ariadne Oliver. Then, the game becomes all too real, and the police and Poirot try to find out who killed Marlene Tucker and why. In the course of their investigation, the police want to interview Hattie Stubbs, whose husband, Sir George Stubbs, owns the home where the fête was held. The only problem is, Hattie Stubbs has disappeared. The police (and several other characters) come to believe that she’s dead, too, but they have no evidence. In fact, at first, it’s believed that she’s run away with a lover. In the end, though, Poirot finds out what happened to Hattie, and how her disappearance ties in with Marlene’s death.

A disappearance is also a major part of the story in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Years ago, sixteen-year-old Harriet Vanger disappeared from the family’s home. Before her disappearance, she had sent her uncle, Henrik Vanger, a gift of pressed flowers every year on her birthday. The year after Harriet’s death, Vanger again receives flowers, and they continue to be sent to him every year. He finally decides to hire publisher Mikael Blomkvist to find out what happened to Harriet. Blomkvist takes on the case in exchange for financial help for his struggling publication, Millenium. Vanger also agrees to help Blomkvist prove his innocence in a case of libel lodged against him by wealthy magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist is helped in his investigation by Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker who’s also a social misfit with her own demons and private agenda. In the end, Blomkvist and Salander discover a shattering truth about the Vanger family that someone’s been keeping secret for nearly forty years.

Michael Robotham’s Lost offers another compelling example of a plot that’s centered on a disappearance. Three years ago, seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle was kidnapped. Everyone believes that pedophile Howard Wavell killed her; there’s evidence against him, and in fact, he’s convicted and imprisoned for her murder. Detective Vincent Ruiz, though, believes that Wavell is innocent and that Mickey Carlyle is still alive, and he’s investigating the case with those assumptions. As the novel begins, Ruiz wakes up in a hospital with a bullet wound in his leg. He has no memory at first of what’s happened, but gradually, with the help of psychologist Jospeh O’Laughlin, Ruiz begins to piece together what happened. As his memory returns, Ruiz returns to his investigation, despite pressure from within and outside of the police department, and finds out what really happened to Mickey Carlyle.

Because the police can’t always investigate a disappearance as a murder, people often hire private detectives to find someone who’s gone missing. That’s how Sherlock Holmes gets involved in The Adventure of the Priory School, the case of ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire has been kidnapped from the Priory School, the most select school in England, only three weeks after having enrolled there. Holmes agrees to look into the disappearance when Thorneycroft Huxtable, founder and principal of the school, begs him to find Saltire. Holmes and Watson travel to the school and track Saltire’s movements. It seems that Saltire left of his his own free will. The same night, Heidegger, the German master at the school, also disappeared. At first, there’s a suspicion that he kidnapped Saltire, but when Heidegger’s body is found, minus the boy, it’s clear that someone else must have been responsible. In the end, in an interesting twist, Holmes finds out what happened to Lord Saltire, and why he left Priory School.

Finding a missing person is also how Walter Mosley’s sleuth, Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins gets involved in private detection in Devil in a Blue Dress. Rawlins has just been fired from his job in an aircraft manufacturing plant in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s desperate for money and afraid he might lose his home. So he agrees to take on an unusual commission. DeWitt Albright hires Rawlins to find Daphne Monet, on behalf of Todd Carter, a wealthy investment banker. It seems that Monet jilted Carter, and we later find out that she stole thirty thousand dollars from him. Rawlins ends up getting more than he bargained for, as he learns that there’s much more to this disappearance than just the money. As it turns out, there are also plenty of secrets and hidden moves as he finds out what happened to Daphne, and as he gets caught up in the events that take place after he learns the truth about her.

One of the most poignant disappearances is the disappearance of Kate Meaney in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. Kate’s a ten-year-old aspiring detective when she disappears one day. At first, her friend, Adrian Palmer, is suspected of killing her and getting rid of the body. In fact, feeling against him runs so high that he feels the need to leave home. He does keep in touch with his sister, Lisa, though. Years later, Lisa has a dead-end job in a local mall where she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Kurt, who’s a security guard at the mall. One day, Kurt’s watching surveillance video when he sees a young girl who looks just like Kate on the film. The child even has a stuffed monkey sticking out of her backpack, must as Kate had many years earlier. Lisa’s always been haunted by Kate’s disappearance and the loss of Adrian, so she becomes preoccupied with finding out what really happened to Kate.

Even when a disappearance isn’t at the center of a story, it can lend suspense and interest to a crime fiction novel. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Stephen Babbington, a beloved clergyman, is poisoned at a cocktail party to which Hercule Poirot has also been invited. Poirot investigates the murder, rather to the chagrin of Sir Charles Cartwright, the famous actor at whose home the murder occurred. At first, there seems no motive for the murder, as Babbington had neither fortune nor enemies. Then, Sir Bartholomew Strange, a friend of Cartwright’s, is poisoned at his Yorkshire home during a house party. When it’s established that Strange’s temporary butler, John Ellis, disappeared on the night of Strange’s death, it seems clear that somehow, Ellis’ disappearance is tied up with the two deaths. In fact, the events are related, and when Poiriot finds out what happened to Ellis, he also knows how and why the deaths of Babbington, Strange and another person occurred.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy novels where a disappearance plays a central role? Or do you find those novels too unsatisfying?


  1. I love novels even when they don't have anything involving a murder... missing persons are interesting too.

    I want to read some of the novels you suggested, I will have to find them on amazon.


  2. Ann - I've always thought the "missing person" scenario can be very engaging. We can be just as absorbed in who the person is who disappeared, why s/he disappeared, and whether s/he'll be found as in anything else.

  3. When there's a missing person involved, it adds to the mystery. You can can go back and forth - they're dead, they're alive, they ran away, somebody kidnapped them, or they could have lost their memory and their way. Just adds so many twists and turns.

  4. Mason - That's one of the best things about including a "missing person" scenario. There are so many ways the plot can go, and so much potential suspense. It really does add fascinating twists and turns to the plot, especially when the disappearance is sudden.

  5. I think they're fun to read. Disappearances add an element of uncertainty to the books!


  6. I enjoy those books where the missing person turns up after years such as in Harlan Coben's Tell No One [book and superb film] or Sommersby [The Return of Martin Guerre?]. I have just started Midnight Fugue: Reginald Hill and there is a missing policeman in that so I am already hooked.

  7. Elizabeth - I know what you mean. When there is a disappearance, we don't know whether the person who's disappeared is still alive, dead, really another character in disguise, etc. That uncertainly does add to the interest.

    Norman - I agree; when someone who was suppoedly gone comes back many years later, there are all kinds of complications that can arise that add to the plot. It's also intriguing when the person who supposedly left has been there all along, but as someome else, or in some other way hidden. You've mentioned terrific examples, too, for which, thank you. There is never enough room in one blog post to mention all the fine examples that there are.

  8. I am so glad you have read "What was lost", Margot, and I hope you enjoyed it even though it was so sad (well, I thought so).
    I agree with you that books featuring someone who has disappeared or become lost can make a very good plot. Sometimes the person turns out to be a character in the book, known to everyone by a different name.
    I have recently finished The Snowman by Jo Nesbo which used this idea in a rather imaginative way, as several young mothers go missing over a number of years. The solution is somewhat over the top/unlikely, but it is an ambitious book and certainly an original one.

  9. Maxine - I agree; What Was Lost really is a sad story, but such a powerful story. I like it,too, when the "disappeared" person turns out to be there all along, just as a different person. It adds a lot to the story, doesn't it?

    I'm very eager to read your review of The Snowman. Other reviews of it have been good, and of course, Jo Nesbo's writing is usually terrific, so I look forward to it. Folks, Dorte at DJ's Krimiblog has written a very fine review of the book; you can read it here.

  10. Oh, I just came to say that I love plots with missing persons, especially cold cases. Many of these are excellent mysteries.

    And then I find a recommendation of my Nesbø review. Thank you very much! As Maxine says, realism is not his strongest point, but he has so many others that I forgive him - every time!

  11. Dorte - It was a pleasure to recommend your review! It's an excellent one. I agree with you, too, about Nesbø. Realistic? Perhaps not always. An excellent writer? Absolutely!

  12. Agreed on Dorte's review, I really liked reading it. My review of the same book is submitted to Euro Crime, I think it will come out at about the same time as the book's publication date in the UK, which I think is early March. I recall reading a synopsis of Sophie Hannah's next novel, which is out in a month or two, which is something along the same lines- well, not the snowmen, but the disappearing mothers.

  13. Maxine - Thanks; I look forward to reading your review - and the book, too, of course : ). I'm going to have to look up Sophie Hannah's new novel, too. That disappearance motif is fascinating...