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Book Review: The Missings by Peg Brantley

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After the critical success of Peg Brantley’s debut novel Red Tide, the challenge, as with most sophomore efforts, would be how to maintain that same level of writing. Most authors would, rightfully, choose to play it safe. Instead, Brantley’s pulled out a story from an earlier effort, which itself was a reworking from one of her earliest efforts, and completely rewrote it. With that knowledge of the history of The Missings, the reader might indeed think she was playing it safe. Not so.

The MissingsWhat she has managed to do is craft one of the most thoroughly engrossing suspense novels of the year. When I read a novel with the idea of writing a review I always have in the back of my mind the author’s previous books, his or her style of writing, whether the book fits in with previous work, how it stacks up, whether the author has improved or stayed the same or have, god forbid, dropped down the scale.

I just couldn’t do that with The Missings. From the opening chapter I was so drawn into the story that I was Living The Story. I forgot the author. I forgot her marvelous debut novel, I forgot other books in the same genre, I forgot my yardstick–that unit of measure that makes you weigh the book by similar books from other authors working in the genre, that makes you watch for the writers craft, the storyline, the plot, sense of place–I even forgot my nice warm cup of tea, which sat getting colder by the page. Quite simply, the old measurements don’t apply. The Missings is so far off the top of the scale, it refuses to be compared to her earlier works or other works in the same field.

And it accomplishes this on many levels. First, the prose is more than top-notch. The dialog is perfect. The story is so topical it seems as if it could be a breaking news item. The cast of characters–from the protagonist to the supporting cast and even the minor characters–are so real they seem like acquaintances, friends, and people you might run into every day at the book store, the local coffee shop, walking in your neighborhood, at the doctors office. Brantley also manages to capture and speak in the voice of different ethnic and social groups, going beyond ‘speech or accent,’ and taking you into the world of neighborhood concerns and mores. She doesn’t just explore but makes the reader live with the reality of a minority group–their hopes and fears, their daily comings and goings, and family life; she takes you into kitchens in a Latino neighborhood and soon you’ll want to–no, feel you–must help with the dishes because you belong there. Simply put, suspense novels, police procedurals, and detective stories just don’t get any better than this. I’m not sure any form of fiction does.

When the first mutilated body turns up in Aspen Falls, stuffed in a dumpster, it’s pretty clear this is no ordinary murder. The victim has been eviscerated, the internal organs removed. The only clue is that the body is a young Hispanic but with no reported missing persons, Detective Chase Waters can’t even identify the victim and with little forensic evidence, and the investigation can barely get off the ground. But Aspen Falls is a small town, and dead bodies turning up are a bit unusual, and just four days prior another was discovered along a hiking trail, cause of death undetermined. The only remarkable item of note: the young Hispanic man had been a little young for natural causes and he had undergone a nephrectomy–the removal of a kidney–sometime in the past. Other than the fact that both dead bodies had been apparently young Hispanic males, yet unidentified, there isn’t much to tie the two cases together.

When a young Latino girl goes missing, this time the girls sister has called in the police; it’s an unusual circumstance in the Latino community that a possible crime, especially one as simple as a missing person, would be reported by someone. Members of the Latino community, with a large percentage of undocumented people, are understandably reluctant to call the police. But the missing girl and her family are legal, and the sister, Elizabeth, is not one to be cowed by the authorities, especially with her love of her family, and especially her younger sister’s well-being. Still, with the distrust of the police at the core of the community–legal or illegal–it is more than difficult for the police to garner any cooperation. Elizabeth breaking this ‘code of silence’ in the community isn’t the only unwritten rule she ignores. She contacts the police against her father’s wishes, bucking the male dominated inner society of Mexican tradition.

Chase decides to look into the case of the missing girl, Rachelle Benavides, even though she hasn’t been missing long enough to officially open a missing persons case. But he is grasping at straws on the case of the two dead bodies; the only fact that could possibly tie the cases together is that all three cases involve young Hispanics. Realizing that, as a white cop going into the Latino community he’ll be viewed with suspicion and likely get no cooperation from Rachelle and Elizabeth’s parents–let alone the community at large–he takes young Mexican-American detective Daniel Murillo with him as “eye candy,” hoping his presence will ease tensions.

But Daniel Murillo has tried so hard to fit into the ‘Anglo’ world that he has disassociated himself from the Latino community, especially from the recent immigrants, legal and illegal. He has become more white than the white world he tries to fit into, and in the process he is denying his heritage. He is assigned to ‘keep an eye’ on Elizabeth, who has vowed to Chase that she will start her own investigation if she isn’t allowed to work with the police. Chase Waters recognizes that she has more of a chance to get answers to questions in her own close-knit community than the average policeman, even if that policeman is Latino.

Soon, on an out-lying Indian burial grounds, another young Latino female body is found mutilated in a similar way to the body in the dumpster. This time wild animals have chewed away most of her face, making it even more difficult to identify the victim. Can it be Rachelle? That is the fear that Chase Waters and his team wonder as they investigate the scene. But the coroner estimates that the victim has been dead for a week or longer and Rachelle only went missing two days ago.

With two victims eviscerated, and a third having had a kidney removed surgically–but still dead under mysterious circumstances–Chase Waters and his team start to suspect a cult. Chase follows this hunch to the local college campus which indeed leads him to a local ‘coven’ leader, while at the same time Daniel and Elizabeth learn that some shabby white criminal types may have been soliciting poor young Latinos for organ donations for cash, which leads to one of Chase’s investigators, Terri Johnson, to the local hospital, the only medical facility in the area that will treat patients without medical insurance. There, Terri Johnson pulls medical records on indigent patients treated at the hospital in the hopes of being able to I.D. the victims.

As Chase spends all his waking hours driven to find this serial killer, his home life suffers. His two daughters need fatherly attention and his wife, Bond, has some problems weighing on her mind. But the case, which seems to be accelerating quickly, consumes him. Mainly because he lost a son recently to a genetic disorder. He wonders if this, added to his long absences from home, are what is bothering Bond. Then Rachelle’s body is discovered by her sister, Elizabeth, hidden in an abandoned mine shaft. Elizabeth received a phone tip, and a warning to back off if she didn’t want to be next.

As the investigative team follows the many possible trails that will hopefully find this killer they ask themselves: are they searching for a deranged serial killer, preying on young illegals because they possibly won’t be reported by the community? Or is it something more sinister, like an actual doctor killing the victims to harvest their organs for monetary gain on the black market?

Brantley expertly weaves the plot elements that include the danger of alienating minority sectors of society and how mainstream society can foster that code of silence to be found, not just in communities of illegal aliens, but in minority sectors of society of all cultures. The illegal but existing black market for organs for transplant. Further, she details the tension inside of immigrants society–multi-generational Americans and the prejudice they can develop for the people of their own culture, the formation of that code of silence, the efforts put forth to live a decent life and to foment a better life for their children. Then, the author offers details of organ harvesting: those who can be exploited and those who wait facing certain death if someone else doesn’t die and leave them with a healthy transplanted organ. Further, Brantley goes in-depth into the ravages of certain genetic diseases, on the victim and on those who love them.

Peg Brantley

In short, the knowledge and research are fascinating and drive The Missings’ plot at a perfect pace, not too much detail and not too little. The character development–and there are a lot of characters to people the diverse plot sectors–is excellent. When Elizabeth and her parents and neighbors talk, the reader will become a Latino in an insulated neighborhood, and when Terri Johnson talks, the reader will absolutely become a young single female cop looking forward to adopting a child as a single parent. When Daniel Murillo struggles with his heritage and relearning the culture his parents came from, the reader will become a second, third, fourth generation minority American.

And Chase Waters, driven to perfection as an investigator, struggling with a boss who is not only a bigot and misogynist but an ignorant, insensitive man as well, also wrestles with family issues. His wife is becoming obviously scarred from something in her past, while–mindful that they have already lost one child–their teenage daughter challenges authority even as her parents try and shield her and protect her. And when the hunt for the killer or killers gets a little too close to home, the reader will be in that police car pushing the gas pedal down and working the radio in the hopes of just being in time to stop the slaughter.

There are no faults in The Missings. Not in story or plot, not in character development or setting. Not in the detailing of racial stereotypes, and the interaction within those societies. Not in the heart-wrenching exploration of the emotional challenges of patients hoping against hope for an organ donor and not a fault in the sinister exploitation of that hope.

As a novelist, Peg Brantley has done the equivalent of winning Rookie Of The Year with her debut, and MVP with her sophomore novel. It exceeds all expectations as a detective story, as a suspense thriller, and as a police procedural. I declared in the review of Red Tide that she was a force to be reckoned with. Now, with The Missings she has proven herself a nuclear super power of the thriller genre. The book is available now as an ebook, while the paperback version is targeted for release the first part of November.

  • File Size: 463 KB Print Length: 283 pages Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited Publisher: , LLC; 1 edition (October 14, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Language: English ASIN: B009R3T2FU Text-to-Speech: Enabled X-Ray: Not Enabled Lending: Enabled
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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.