Most writing classes say that a good story must capture the reader's interest in
the first ten pages. Levien manages to do it in under five. He pulls us in
quickly by creating a very likable twelve-year old, Jamie, and then immediately
placing him in harm's way. The suspense builds quickly as the scenes repeatedly
switch from Jamie on his morning paper route to the abductors in their car.
The foreshadowing builds and our worst fears are confirmed when Jamie's bike meets the grill of the car.
Levien's technique of multiple view-points and short tense scenes, which one might attribute to his screen-writing expertise, heighten the on-going suspense and parallel the urgency of a missing child situation.
He gives us a story that offers more than a fast-moving crime plot. It is also a tale of losses - the loss of a child, the loss of innocence, the loss of the parent's relationship as they deal with their feelings of helplessness. It explores in a painful way what happens to families as they try to cope with meaningless tragedy.
In an interview shortly after publication, Levien said, "One advantage a novelist has over a screen-writer is the ability to use interior monologue and get at the characters' inner voices and states of mind." Using this technique, he shows us how quickly a routine morning can change to a parent's worst nightmare. Carol is enjoying the view from her kitchen window while sipping her coffee. (She prefers Folger's fresh-ground beans to Starbucks) and Paul is pondering how to sell more split-annuities (so they can continue to afford the lovely neighborhood they have recently moved to). But in a matter of minutes their world turns inside-out and these seemingly mundane thoughts are gone forever to be replaced by an unimaginable horror.
As we follow them to the police station, to the school, to Jamie's friends, we feel their anguish in their futile search. No clues, no answers, and not much encouragement from the authorities that missing children are ever found.
And that is the heart of the story. Jamie disappears but we don't know how, why or what has happened to him for almost three-hundred pages. The parents' search becomes the reader's search and the pages turn ever faster.
As early as chapter three, we fast-forward to fourteen-months later and Paul's refusal to accept the fact that his son cannot be found. Through various efforts to seek help, he stumbles onto a former cop and private investigator named Frank Behr, whose presence then carries the story.
Frank Behr is a sympathetic character struggling with his past demons. Once again, the multiple point of view allow us to know him intimately. The personal stakes are high should he take on this case, opening wounds he would rather leave closed. But it's these very wounds that cause him to join forces with Paul in his relentless search. A few sub-plots add some diversion, such as Frank's relationship with a new lady friend and the outcome of Paul and Carol's relationship which has become platonic and frigid since Jamie's disappearance.
Paul and Frank's search takes them far from the suburbs of Midwest America to a frightening and bizarre underground world. The reader is given no clues as to whether Jamie's abductors will be found, nor are we given any hope that Jamie has survived. Their search is an emotional journey as well as a physical one and this too gives the novel more depth. The emotional journey is perhaps what causes people to read a book of this nature - if we read to understand an experience we haven't had (and in this case hope to never have) then the author has achieved his purpose. As for characters we'd like to spend more time with, it is safe to assume that Levien plans more books with former cop Frank Behr, and I for one would welcome another journey with him.
Coming Soon: Where The Dead Lay (USA - July 2009): After the sinister disappearance of two highly-paid detectives, Frank Behr is pulled into his darkest, most relentless case.
This review was originally published in March 2008, and has been updated for the February 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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