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.
What 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.