Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner

Before She Disappeared is consummate crime writing, Gardner’s missing person thriller grips like a vice as everything about this novel slots nicely into place. It opens with an intriguing incident, the end of Frankie Elkin’s last case. She finds a missing woman at the bottom of a lake, it’s a tragic end but it’s closure for the family. Lana Whitehorse, 22, went missing one night after a bar shift ended at 2am. They always knew Lani would never have run off leaving her toddler daughter but the police gave up on her a long time ago.

Frankie lives to ease the pain of families missing loved ones, one day hoping to find a misper alive. She has the experience of fourteen cases, none of the victims was recovered alive. This opening scene at the lake poses as many questions about Frankie as it answers; why does she do this? What haunts Frankie? Many years ago a school friend of hers went missing, another girl from a nearby town soon after, then four more but the killer wasn’t caught until she was twenty-five. Her whole life is on hold as the only thing that matters to her is the current misper case – the family, the victim. Her obsession drove away the one person she loved and now she moves from place to place, one misery to another. However, Frankie is a civilian, not even a PI, some would call her a do gooder, she works for no pay and doesn’t seek publicity – she just wants to help the families of the disappeared. She’s mistrusted by everyone and dismissed by the authorities wherever she goes and yet nothing will distract her from her mission, (there really are ordinary people who do this). Frankie certainly doesn’t conform to the proto-detective tropes, she’s an oddball character as intriguing to figure out as the misper investigation she insinuates herself into. The first person narrative adds immediacy and it’s an experience being inside Frankie’s head; she’s admirable in many ways, flawed but sincere, a loner, a recovering addict, determined and single minded.

Three weeks after finding Lani, Frankie has decided on her next case – Boston. This isn’t like her other cases and the local cops think she is way out of her depth in the big city as Frankie is a small town girl from northern California. She’s chosen a shy looking fifteen year old girl, details posted on a missing persons chatroom. Angelique Lovelei Badeau left school one afternoon eleven months ago and was never seen again. Known as Angel to her friends and Lili to family, she was a quiet girl, doing well in school, no reason to leave. Lily is from Mattapan, ‘murderpan’ where Frankie a middle aged white woman stands out, this is a poor black neighbourhood, rundown and rough – riddled with gangs and violence. The community are mostly Haitian immigrants, ‘ten year Haitians’, (those arriving after the earthquake). The police don’t have any leads on Lily’s disappearance but they are openly hostile to amateurs and outsiders messing with the case, annoyed that Frankie has tacit permission from the family to go ahead. She gets a job in Stoney’s, board, lodge and tips while she investigates. Lead detective Dan Lotham is sceptical but Frankie isn’t going away and she has a remarkable skill for getting people to talk, something the cops just don’t possess. It’s irritating for Lotham but Frankie starts making real headway. Maybe this isn’t one of those cases destined to end in not knowing, maybe this one time the victim is alive? Can Frankie’s intuition and perseverance outmatch the police forensics and resources that have so far got nowhere?

Frankie isn’t the only fascinating character here and the mystery is really satisfying, the atmosphere is tense and wrought throughout. Fans of Gardner will love this book; I, as a newcomer to her novels, loved it too.

Century, hardback, ISBN 9781529124415, 26/1/21

Personal read 4½*
Group read 5*

The Therapist by BA Paris

Step into The circle, a gated community that masquerades as the idyllic haven, a cross between London and country living; secure, secluded, quiet and yet convenient and at the heart of things. The truth is darker, for newcomer Alice, with her partner Leo, this is Dante’s seventh, eighth and ninth circle of hell rolled into one. The Therapist is a twisty psychological tale peppered with revelations, red herrings, blind alleys and a manipulative and vicious killer.

While I was instantly taken with Before She Disappeared it took me longer to warm to The Therapist. For me Paris spent a little too long on warming up the characters and laying the seeds of the mystery. I didn’t take to the protagonist’s plight, (settling into a new home, making new friends, leaving the comfort of her village life), until the mystery begins to occupy her time and she came to life. Other readers will see my reservation as impatience and will take to Alice instantly, enjoying this measured approach. I dug in and was rewarded for my patience with a very satisfying mystery and an exciting, cleverly disguised, denouement. Paris is a writer who lays subtle clues and pointers to what is going on but keeps the solution to the real mystery tantalisingly out of reach to the very last page.

Then – The novel opens in the minimalist office of a therapist, the client is two minutes late, she arrives dressed like a candidate for a job interview, then announces that she is essentially happy, questioning why she comes at all. The therapist’s words seem to calm her doubts about their time together, ending with:

“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Now – Alice is unpacking, she and Leo moved into The Circle ten days ago, she hasn’t worked up the nerve to talk to the neighbours yet. Even though it is quiet Alice is used to more seclusion, Leo finally convinced her to move to London. The Circle is an exclusive gated estate near Finsbury park, convenient for Leo’s job, he travels a lot by train, and as a translator Alice can work from home. The newbies have been added to the circle WhatsApp group so Alice plucks up her courage and sends an invite to the other residents – a party this Saturday, most accept. Tim and Maria have babysitter issues so they can’t make it but suggest one or the other might pop in. With all the other guests arrived a man knocks on the door, Alice assumes it Tim, even giving him a tour of the house. It’s only afterwards when she meets Tim and Maria that she realises this isn’t the man who turned up at the party. The stranger got one of the other residents to let him into The Circle claiming he had an invite. Leo seems as spooked by this as Alice is; he’s been having problems with a stalker, something he won’t talk about but it’s partly the reason for moving to the gated community. Alice’s parents and her older sister, Nina, died in a car crash when she was nineteen, it still haunts her. The stranger finally returns, his name is Thomas Grainger, he tells Alice that he’s a private investigator trying to clear the name of a man accused of murder. A murder that happened in Alice’s house just over a year ago. At first Alice doesn’t believe Thomas but the details are online. A woman called Nina, like her sister, was murdered right here, everyone assumed it was the husband, Oliver, who did it, he later committed suicide. Thomas thinks the police are keeping the investigation open even though Oliver is dead and he thinks Oliver is innocent. Nina had a lover, he’s trying to find that person. Alice is devastated by the news about the house’s bloody history, the fact that the victim was called Nina makes it worse. She is angry with Leo for hiding this from her, why would he do that? When Alice raises the topic of Nina’s murder with the neighbours they are cagy about it, no one really wants to talk. Alice begins to look into things for herself, she begins to rely on Thomas to bounce her theories off. Slowly, devastatingly, the past reveals itself, Alice is in real danger.

A creepy atmosphere and clever plotting make for an entertaining read.

HQ, hardback, ISBN 9780008412005, 7/1/21

Personal 3½*
Group 4*

Reviews by Paul Burke