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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.

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.