Waiting For the Message I’m Dreading to Hear*

When someone goes missing and the police are called in, there’s often a thorough search, especially if that person is a child. Depending on the situation, there may be search parties called out, and there’s usually a series of interviews with family, friends, co-workers, and anyone else who might have information. For the loved ones of a missing person, it’s a nerve-wracking, harrowing time. For the police, it involves a lot of time and resources. Sometimes these stories end well; often, sadly, they do not. However the story ends, searches take a toll on everyone. In a crime novel, they also add a layer of heightened suspense and sometimes, character development.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver creates a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. She has a strong feeling that more is going on than just preparations for the fête, so she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nasse House and investigate. He agrees, so he is present on the day of the event. As it turns out, Mrs. Oliver’s instincts serve her well. First, there’s a murder during the fête. Then Lady Stubbs goes missing. The police are already investigating the murder, and they add some officers to begin the search. The grounds are searched thoroughly, as is the house itself and the other buildings on the property. So is the yacht belonging to Lady Stubbs’ cousin, who happens to be visiting. Divers search the local river, too, all to no avail. The only clue that turns up is Lady Stubbs’ hat.  The search adds an interesting layer of tension to the story, and a solid plot complication.

Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone features a harrowing search for a four-year-old girl. When Amanda McCready goes missing from her Dorchester (Massachusetts) home, the police are contacted and a wide, intense search begins. There are posters and flyers made, and the child’s mother, Helene, makes a television appeal. Volunteers search everywhere, and a lot of time is spent going door-to-door to find out if anyone saw anything. Nothing turns up, though. Amanda’s aunt and uncle hire PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to try to find the girl. Kenzie, especially, doesn’t know what they can do that the police and thousands of volunteers haven’t been able to accomplish, but the pair take the case and begin work. Throughout the novel, we see the toll that the search takes on them, and it’s interesting to see how PIs, who don’t have police resources, go about such a search.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins with the disappearance of four-year-old Gemma Anderson. The family is at a school picnic at a local lake when the girl disappears. Everyone there takes part in a massive search, including searching the bottom of the lake. There’s no sign of Gemma, though, and panic soon sets in. The police are contacted, and begin a thorough investigation, but they can’t find any real leads. It all takes a horrible toll on the family, especially as the police subject the members to very careful scrutiny. And there are some whispers that someone in the family may be responsible. Gemma’s never found, though, and the Andersons have to return to some semblance of life. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister, Stephanie, is a beginning psychologist working in Dunedin. When a new client tells a similar story to Stephanie’s own – a younger sister gone missing with no trace found – Stephanie decides to lay her ghosts to rest and find the person responsible for such devastation. Throughout the novel, we see how hard it is on the family during a search for a missing person. There’s hope, there’s grief, there are all sorts of complicated emotions, and the experience can rip families apart.

In today’s digital world, missing people, especially missing children, soon become objects of a great deal of media attention, which takes an even harder toll on the family. That’s what happens in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner Alistair Robertson travel from Joanna’s native Scotland to Alistair’s hometown in Victoria. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. The flight itself is a nightmare, so they’re glad to land and take the drive from the airport in Melbourne to Alistair’s family home. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. They alert the police, and an extensive search begins. The Australian media (and then international media) pick up the story, and it’s also spread on Twitter and other social media. There are ‘find Baby Noah’ sites and other sites devoted to the story. Joanna and Alistair appear on television, too, to make a public plea. Soon enough, though, there are whispers and hints that the couple might be responsible for Noah’s disappearance. Joanna, especially, is targeted. It’s a horrible experience, and we see how quickly social media opinion turns against them.

Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice shows how haunting a search for a missing person can be. Auckland police detective Matt Buchanan has seen some horrible things in his years as a police officer. But the one case that continues to haunt him is the 1999 disappearance of Samantha Coates. She was walking home from school one afternoon, but she didn’t make it home. No body was ever found, and no sign of her has ever turned up. Whenever he can spare the time, Buchanan goes back over the file to see if there are any fresh leads, new angles, or overlooked information. Meanwhile, though, he has other cases to investigate. Then, some fresh leads come up in the Coates case, and Buchanan feels he has no choice but to find out what he can. It’s all going to lead to a very dark place, and Buchanan will have to decide just how far he’ll go.

Disappearances wreak havoc on family and friends. And the process of searching is costly, time-consuming, and gut-wrenching. It’s worth all of that if the person is found safe, but it’s still harrowing. And it can make for a truly suspenseful plot thread if it’s not done in a melodramatic way. Which fictional searches have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Davies’ Missing Persons.

8 thoughts on “Waiting For the Message I’m Dreading to Hear*

  1. A disappearance must be even worse than having your child murdered, I think, unless the child is found quickly. The not knowing means you can’t get that sense of ‘closure’, or begin grieving. I know how helpless I felt once when a cat of mine went missing for several weeks, and of course that’s a tiny thing in comparison to a child going missing. But the need to go on searching was overwhelming even when it felt pointless. (The cat turned up again, btw, so that little story had a happy ending.)


    1. It must have been awful for you, FIctionFan, to have your cat go missing. I’m just very glad the cat came back; that is a happy ending. I think you’re right, too, that it’s worse to have a child go missing than for the child to be murdered, especially if the child is missing for long time. I can only imagine what parents in that situation must go through. As you say, not knowing means you’re frozen in a way. You can’t start to grieve, and you don’t have the answers you need. It must be horrible.


  2. I loved Dead Man’s Folly, of course, mainly because I enjoy Ariadne Oliver. That was a very clever mystery.

    But the rest would not be the type of story I would enjoy, because they involve children. I am sure I miss some good books by avoiding that topic, but it is too tense for me.


    1. It is a really tense, sometimes unhappy topic, Tracy. I can see why you’re reluctant to read books involving child disappearances. Not every book is for every reader. And I agree with you about Ariadne Oliver. She’s a great character, and I like her role in Dead Man’s Folly.


    1. You’re absolutely right about the first of Pronzini’s Nameless stories, Col. He’s hired by wealthy man to deliver ransom money to the people who abducted the man’s son. Things don’t quite work out as planned, though… I agree with you about Gone, Baby, Gone. It really is a haunting story.


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