Detective series or thrillers about murders demand from the reader a level of intellectual curiosity, as well as nerves of steel and a strong stomach. When well written, they are gripping page turners that, more often than not, leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction that the crime has been solved and the perpetrator punished. However, novels about missing people demand and offer this, and more. They propose the tantalising possibility of hope.
The enduring appeal of a story about a missing person comes, I think, from the fact that it allows the reader to grapple with a broader range of emotions, everything from despair to hope. The missing and their left-behind are suspended in an unfathomably cruel in-between space that haunts the reader. Those left behind can’t grieve or find closure, those missing are not here but not gone. Stories about missing people therefore address a ubiquitous unease at accepting oblivion. Maybe something that has become more attractive as our world becomes increasingly secular.
The reader is placed in an ambiguous purgatory, which whilst far from comfortable, does offer opportunity to believe in an outcome that doesn’t have to feature a body in a morgue. That permission to desire something less bleak is compelling. When writing Woman Last Seen and Two Dead Wives (both books centre around missing people) I grappled with the fact that the missing might very well be dead but that isn’t the only possible story or the only possible conclusion. Whilst reading about someone who is missing the reader obviously wants to discover where they might be, but other questions are raised too. The reader must ask, did they run away from something or towards something? Did they leave of their own accord, or were they taken? Are they now dead, or still alive? Most importantly, will they come back?
So stories about missing people therefore are multi-faceted, nuanced and, above all, hopeful. Readers are teased as they predict not only who dunnit but what was done exactly? That’s why although there are countless novels about missing people, they all tell a different story and have a place. Here are some of my favourites.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The book equivalent to ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. I’m sure there were books about people disappearing before Flynn’s Gone Girl, of course there were, but this one heralded a slew of unreliable narrators, stories about marital disharmony and jaw dropping WHAT THE ACTUAL… moments. Will remain one of my forever favourite reads.
Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.
This tense, clever page-turner about a daughter who goes missing just before she completes her end of school exams is sad, torrid and dark but also heartfelt and tender. Ellie had her whole life before her but then she vanished. Narrated mostly from the point of view of the mother who just will not and cannot accept her daughter has gone, Jewell freshly articulates every parents’ worst nightmare in this twisty page turner.
The Girls Who Disappeared by Claire Douglas
Twenty years ago on a miserable rainy night, Olivia Rutherford is driving three friends home when a figure in the road causes her to swerve and crash. When she regains consciousness, she finds herself alone in the car – her friends have vanished and they are never seen again. Despite pressure from investigators and journalists, Olivia won’t speak of that fateful night. The question is, what is she hiding.
Local Woman Missing by Mary Kubica
When a local mother and her six-year-old daughter, Delilah, suddenly vanish, their close-knit suburban community is rocked by fear and suspicion. Eleven years later, Delilah shockingly reappears. Gradually secrets hidden deep in the past are revealed but is the truth about those missing years palpable to the shocked and scared community?
Three Women Disappeared by James Patterson and Shan Serafin
When an extremely powerful and dangerous man is killed, the three women closest to him suddenly disappear —his wife, his personal chef, and his maid. Now Detective Sean Walsh is racing to discover what happened to the women, and why the victim wound up dead. However the more he discovers about this controlling and treacherous man’s affairs, the more reasons he finds for the women to stay hidden.
The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield
The oil business is booming in small-town North Dakota. With all the workers coming and going from the “man camps” set up to process the overflow of new town residents, it’s easy for people to disappear. Colleen and Shay couldn’t be more different, but they are united by the same mission: to find their missing sons. But the oil company that is at the heart of the town’s prosperity might also be at the center of these disappearances—or at the very least helping to cover them up.