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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Tim Gautreaux

Knopf, 2009

Filed under: Literary, Mystery, Thrillers

The Missing doesn’t quite know where to stand, genre-wise. On the one hand, there’s a bit of a mystery—a young girl is kidnapped in department store and the security guard on duty at the time, Sam Simoneaux, sets out to find her and get her back.

On the other hand, Gautreaux reveals by page 90 the culprits behind the kidnapping, and even the rednecks they paid to do the actual deed. That means the mystery is reduced to a yes/no question—will Sam find the girl or not?—and we still have 300 pages to get through.

I’m guessing, from those facts, that Gautreaux wants this to be a literary thriller, one of those “the true mystery is how it happens” books. It doesn’t work.

The story takes place in 1920s Louisiana and Mississippi, just after World War I. Gautreaux writes pretty good prose, among the best of the Edgar-nominated writers. He can turn a phrase, and the sound (as opposed to the content) of his dialogue is one of his strong suits.

Gautreaux also does great work describing the quality of life at this point in history. Most of the novel takes place on a rattletrap steamboat called the Ambassador, and you can almost feel her tacked-together deck boards creaking under your feet. For instance, this excellent description:

He looked back over the rail and realized for the first time that these old boats were made mostly of thin wood, to keep the weight down—regular wood that wanted to rot and warp and crack and leak and twist, and woe to everybody on board if a fire ever got started. The Ambassador had seen its share of summer squalls and upriver ice jams, … and every lurch and shock was recorded in her timbers. He looked aft and saw again the buckles in her guardrails, the swale in her roofline. The boat seemed a used-up, dead and musty thing as still as a gravestone, and he wondered who in his right mind would want to ride on it for fun.

Unfortunately, that’s most of the novel: description. The steamboat has no part to play in the mystery, it’s just where Sam and the kidnapped child’s parents work. There are plenty of characters on the boat, and race relations to keep track of, jazz to enjoy. But none of it changes, and no drama ever develops.

Instead it just goes like this: everybody works hard on the boat. And then they’re tired. Passengers get drunk and start fights. Sam breaks them up. Then everybody’s tired. They play some music. Then everybody’s tired from working so hard. Since the boat never plays into the mystery at all—other than being a staging ground for Sam’s occasional investigative forays into the wilderness ashore—lifelike description can’t save us from severe monotony.

The same goes for the characters. Sam is more or less an automaton, blankly going through the motions of this case, not letting his emotions get in the way—ever. Sam would be passable as the hero of a real mystery, but when there’s no suspense and no case to really solve (even Sam knows everything by halfway through), he just doesn’t have enough personality to carry a novel.

Pacing is another problem, and Sam’s character starts taking wild swings as an excuse to stretch the story out for a few hundred more pages. Gautreaux also tries a late twist, which more or less falls flat, as it happens off-screen, and then we still have another hundred pages to wade through.

Too much of the time, we’re left with Sam tracking down people we already know. That sometimes reads (and always feels) like this:

“Can you tell me where Graysoner is?”

The chief steward looked at his face and winced. “Rough time last night. Graysoner the new man what replaced that old Jenkins boy with the broke leg?”

“No, it’s a town in Kentucky.”

“It’s a town.”

“That’s right.”

“Go see Mr. Check in the kitchen. He’s from Kentucky.”

Mr. Check, the head cook, was scraping down a stove top with a firebrick. “Naw, I ain’t from Kentucky. … The steward’s thinking of that Meldon feller who cooked for us two years gone. Go ask the captain. … ”

That goes on for about four times that length. Sam talks to a total of five people before he figures out where Graysoner is. It doesn’t provide any suspense, and Sam is too shallow a character to be compelling. We don’t get any insight into what he thinks about things, or what he’s learned about life (except the fact that he doesn’t believe in exacting revenge—he learned that when he was a baby and says it over and over and over).

As far as action, Gautreaux does OK. He sprinkles in scenes of brutality and handles well, and he often hits plot points in satisfying ways. The problem, again, is that those gut-wrenching scenes don’t change anything, and they don’t reveal anything new. They serve, by and large, merely to corroborate what we initially learned about the characters. If someone’s mean, he’ll be mean; if he hates shooting guns, he’ll hate it.

Ultimately there isn’t the perceptive interior life or the depth of character to drive a plotless literary novel, and there isn’t enough plot to drive a mystery. Sometimes these cross-genre projects work out; this time it didn’t.

Similar reads: Serena, by Ron Rash; Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

Opposite read: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford. It takes place over a weekend. Almost nothing happens, except a phenomenal depth of interior life. The sequel, Independence Day, won a Pulitzer.

Edgar impact: Somewhere between a literary novel and a mystery, The Missing is unsatisfying as either, though its prose is quite well crafted. Still, it’s tied for second with The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. Still in the lead is The Last Child.