From first grade through high school, I attended Catholic school in Brooklyn, New York. This meant knee socks and nuns, plaid skirts and thick shoes. It meant confessing made-up sins to a bored priest and a literal belief in heaven and hell. I didn’t covet one or fear the other. I hadn’t committed any hell-worthy sins, and the thought that I might someday was more interesting than frightening.
Purgatory, though, got my attention. Heaven was up and hell was down but purgatory existed outside of even this simple map. Purgatory, we were taught, was where you ended up if you had not been baptized; if you had failed to use your last breath to say an act of contrition; if you were, overall, a middling kind of sinner. I imagined purgatory as a corridor filled with gray light and loitering souls, all waiting to be bumped up to heaven by the prayers of the living.
In my novel, Ghosts of the Missing a twelve-year-old girl vanishes from a small Hudson Valley town. Fifteen years later, she is still missing. As I was writing it, I didn’t realize the book was about purgatory, not as a place but as a state of being.
Of course, there are missing persons cases, where, even without resolution, it’s clear what actually happened. But then there are those where the only evidence is absence. The media falls back on the language of no answers. Into thin air. Without a trace. No closure. Still missing.
One day, trying to think of a title for my novel, I paused in the hallway of my apartment, these phrases running through my mind. My eyes fell a splotch of paint on the wall that’s always been there. But that afternoon, I thought, ghost. It looked like a child’s rendering of a ghost, a form draped in white.
Ghosts, missing. Ghosts of the Missing. I felt it encapsulated the pain of an unresolved disappearance. A missing person, neither dead nor alive, haunts those to whom they are lost.
In the early 1980’s, pictures of missing children began appearing on the backs of milk cartons. The information was scant: hometown, height, weight, birthday and the date the child disappeared. The photographs were close-ups, grainy and dark. Looking back, it’s easy to see them not as formal school photos or candid shots with the context cropped away, but rather as pictures taken in the purgatory where the long-missing wait. The in-between. A nowhere place. A tattered poster stapled to a telephone pole, but instead of Missing, it says, This is Where I Am.
The following books about missing persons, fiction and nonfiction, grapple with what it is like to search and mourn at once. Each emphasize the final confirmed sighting, the place last seen, underscoring the bafflement that often surrounds a disappearance. The snowy woods of Oregon, a shopping mall in Maryland, a holiday apartment in Portugal, a supermarket in England. None seem to be the precipice of a void. And yet.
The Daughter in Time by Josephine Tey
In 1483, King Edward IV of England died. Before his twelve-year-old son could be coronated, he and his younger brother were put in the Tower of London by their paternal uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard had all of his brother’s children declared illegitimate and ascended to the throne himself.
In The Daughter in Time, a detective who is laid up with a broken leg decides to spend his convalescence examining a historical mystery. He chooses that of the princes in the tower, last seen publicly in the summer of 1483, and so studies the myriad theories of murder, rescue and escape that circulated contemporarily and have continued to do so for centuries.
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
This Australian novel opens on Valentine’s Day, 1900 as the teenaged students of the exclusive Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies are heading out for a picnic.
Three of the schoolgirls and one of their teachers decide to climb Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation that remains a popular tourist destination.
Three of the girls and the teacher never return from their walk. A search goes on until dark and resumes at daybreak but they are gone. The mystery of their fate reverberates throughout the school, the riddle only deepening when one of the missing girls reappears on Hanging Rock near death, and unable to remember what happened.
Lindsey has said she wrote the novel in two weeks after having several vivid dreams of the events of the book and the novel does have the quality of a dream, languid and unrushed, beautiful terror.
The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr
This is the second novel featuring the investigators assembled in New York City, 1896, by Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, child psychologist and nascent criminal profiler. Their goal was to catch a child killer based on elements of his crimes. Alienist introduced Kreizler, journalist John Moore, Sara Howard, the first woman to work in the police department and two detective brothers, the Isaacsons, whose modern crime-solving methods—like fingerprinting—are distrusted by the New York City police department.
In The Angel of Darkness, it is 1897 and the baby daughter of a Spanish dignitary has been abducted. Because of the tense relationship between Spain and the United States, the child’s father forbids her mother from reporting the crime. And so she hires Kreizler’s team to conduct a secret investigation. Together, each bringing to the task their separate specialties, the team probes all the possible motives for the baby’s disappearance, from the political, to the deeply personal.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
In this book, Ian McEwan describes an abduction that is terrifying in the way lightning is. In a bustling supermarket, a man glances at his three-year-old daughter, playing nearby as he pays for their groceries. He looks again, and she is gone. The novel is about the toll the disappearance takes on Stephen and Julie Lewis as they mourn the loss of their only child, caught between hope and grief. Stephen particularly, also burdened by guilt, cannot stop looking for her. Any little girl who even slightly resembles Kate might well be Kate, growing up apart from her parents. Kate, still alive. He calls himself “the father of an invisible child.”
Looking for Madeleine by Anthony Summers and Robyn Swann
Madeleine McCann has been called the most famous missing person in the world. In May of 2007, the three-year-old British girl was vacationing with her parents and younger twin siblings in Portugal when she disappeared from the family’s rental apartment. Her parents and their friends were at a nearby restaurant and making half-hour checks on their children. At 10 pm, Kate McCann found her daughter gone.
Husband and wife journalists Robbyn Swan and Anthony Summers have said the intent of the book is to go beyond the sensationalism surrounding the case and present an objective look at the evidence. They have done so, carefully dismantling the many rumors and the myths that have become accepted as fact. Madeleine was still missing when the book was published in 2014 and six years later, the case not only remains unsolved, her fate is still a complete mystery.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Are they dead? If alive, where are they? What is happening to them?
While many missing persons novels are about those asking these questions, to read Room is to be with the one who knows the answers. That is Ma, as she is called by her five-year-old son, Jack who narrates the story, unaware that his mother was abducted by the man who brings them food and supplies. Jack does not know his mother has been a prisoner for seven years, that his home is a soundproofed garden shed behind Old Nick’s house. He does not know that Old Nick is his biological father. The novel is about their eventual escape, Ma’s adjustment to life after captivity, and Jack’s adjustment to the whole world outside of four walls of Room. In the book, Donoghue presents what is conversely both the nightmare and the hope for the long-missing.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
In 1975, the Bethany sisters, eleven and fifteen years old, disappear from a Baltimore, Maryland shopping mall. There are no witnesses to an abduction, no suspects. As one character asks, who grabs two?
Thirty years later, a woman comes forward, claiming to be the younger of the two girls. Lippman has arranged the plot so that an answer via DNA is not an option. The novel is concerned not only with the pain of a family that lost both their daughters, but also the is-she-or-isn’t she aspect of the plot, and how a family can ever truly know a child who was taken from them.
The Last Stone by Mark Bowden
What the Dead Know is a nonfiction book based on the disappearance of Sheila and Kate Lyon, who vanished together from a Baltimore shopping mall in 1975. The sisters were twelve and ten, respectively, the middle children of four and the family’s only daughters.
The Last Stone is a riveting account of how the case was solved forty years after the girls disappeared. Bowen pieces together the events of the March afternoon the Lyon sisters, as they were called, went to local mall to eat lunch and look at Easter decorations. It recounts the years of fruitless investigation and the doggedness of the many cold case detectives who tried to solve the case–until one finally sees what so many others did not.
In the Woods by Tana French
Three twelve-year-olds go into the woods beside their homes in an Irish housing estate. Though they frequently played their together, on this day, one of the boys and the girl vanish. The other boy is found injured but alive, unable to recall what happened. Twenty-two years later, that boy is a detective, who, along with a partner is investigating a murder that may be connected to the still-unsolved disappearances of his best friends.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
A little girl and her parents are searching for a Christmas tree deep in the Oregon woods, when the child runs ahead of her parents. They quickly follow but can’t find her. Three years later, still refusing to believe their daughter got lost and succumbed to the elements, they hire Naomi Cottle. She is known as The Child Finder, because of the seemingly hopeless cases of missing children that she has solved on her own. Naomi is herself a found child. How Naomi was lost, and who she belonged to, are a mystery, even to her. The Child Finder weaves the two stories together, combining the stories of both the mystery of al missing child’s fate, and what may happen if she does return.