Missing Person

Written by Sarah Lotz

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

Missing Person
Hodder and Stoughton
RRP: £19.99
Released: September 5 2019

The threat is immediate, and implicit, in the first sentence we are presented with a bubble in time where a person called Pete watches a boy approach men in a crowded bar: “If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone.”

This book is slow to reveal its mysteries. Annoyed, titillated, intrigued: the reader runs the gamut although quickly appreciating the game: clever clues acting as guides on a carefully plotted route. Concentration is all when a plot with all the intricacies of a homicide investigation is conducted on-line not by the police but by concerned citizens who know which questions to ask.

One may start with a moment of resignation: Oh no, not the Troubles again…. but the focus of this particular extended Irish family is Shaun, a gay wannabe poet who sells books, lives above the shop with a mongrel called Daphne and has no friends other than Brendan, an occasional lover.

Shaun is different, a loner who had a favourite uncle, Teddy, but Teddy died in Galway twenty years ago, unregretted and un-mourned by his family. Such behaviour was unnatural then, and now is questioned by his uncle’s old mate who turns up at the bookshop with the startling news that Teddy is alive and living in New York.

Cornered and intimidated, Shaun’s aunt confesses that the adults had agreed to lie to the younger members of the family in order to protect them from the hideous nature of Teddy’s behaviour - and no way is she going to elaborate on that. In any event the alleged infamy is less important to Shaun than the discovery of his uncle’s whereabouts. He appeals for help on-line, posting a photo of Teddy as a lad.

The appeal is picked up by Chris, a woman in Nevada who runs a website, Missing-Linc, which aims to match unidentified human remains with missing persons. Chris is a spiky character, disabled and operating from a decrepit trailer, she is a member of a loose community of amiable bikers with a relaxed attitude to drugs, sex and crime, but despite the congenial ambiance her closest friends, albeit virtual, are those helping to run her cherished website.

Missing-Linc is currently working on two cold cases: the body of a young man wearing a dress found twenty years ago on a nature reserve in Oregon, and a second body, also of a young man, discovered near an Army base close by. The two victims, linked by propinquity and time, are suggestive of a serial killer.

When the photo of Uncle Teddy seems to correspond with that of the Boy in the Dress, concerned interest escalates to enthusiasm tinged with hysteria while the aims of Missing-Linc expand from identifying remains to discovering the killer. The danger is obvious. The web operators are vulnerable; they have uncovered too many secrets and there is a murderer at large. The novel, a fascinating puzzle until now, becomes an exciting thriller.

This is a long book with short chapters. There is no padding. Internet exchanges reveal as much of the operators’ personalities as the progress of the action, and the virtual world is juxtaposed with domestic scenes of family life where partners and children fill gaps but only to complicate and intensify the increasingly fervid atmosphere. The author moves easily from Dublin to Nevada to Oregon, from Irish Catholics to bikers to white collar America, and her dialogue follows suit. Lotz is at home in every setting and lives in her characters, carrying the reader with her. This is a writer who knows her stuff.


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