According to the U.S. Department of Justice, just more than 2,000 children are reported missing every single day. The vast majority of them are found, sometimes quickly, but for the families and loved ones of those who are not, a canvas of unanswered questions opens up ready to be painted with a palette of psychological complexity.
No wonder that the plight of a disappeared youngster appeals to writers crisscrossing into and out of genre: When a crime novel focuses on murder, the expectation is that this chaotic event will be put right with the identity of the culprit. But disappearance suggests a more elastic narrative that takes in a wide spectrum of emotions of those affected.
In other words, a missing-person tale carries the weight of a dissonant chord perpetually unresolved but, as some of the most indelible novels of the last few years demonstrate, also presents a wide swath of color and tone rife for exploration from an array of vantage points. Laura Lippman's 2007 bestseller, "What the Dead Know" (Harper: 432 pp., $7.99 paper), spools its multi-character narrative out of the alleged reappearance of the now-grown-up Heather Bethany after more than 30 years of unknown whereabouts, doling out telling character details in the midst of conjuring up a nifty, surprising resolution.
"Echoes From the Dead" (Delta: 390 pp., $14) by Johan Theorin is not only another standout example of the Swedish crime fiction invasion, but its lyrical prose and haunting story line capture the constant state of hope and anxiety a mother feels about her disappeared son, augmented 20 years on when new evidence appears pointing to a startling and sad conclusion. Catherine O'Flynn's Costa Award winner "What Was Lost" ( Henry Holt: 300 pp., $13.95 trade paper) belongs less definitively within crime fiction's borders but is no less gripping, inverting the progression of investigative prowess by the preternaturally gifted Kate Meaney into a more melancholic, metaphorical account of absence and lingering disappointment, set against the backdrop of a small-town mall in rapid retail decline.
The sense of not knowing what happened to a child and the damage that lack of resolution wreaks upon a close companion is a hallmark of one of the brightest new stars of literary suspense, Jennifer McMahon. "Promise Not to Tell" (Harper: 256 pp., $13.95) compares and contrasts the recent murder of a young girl and the older disappearance of narrator Kate Cypher's best friend from girlhood, dubbed "Potato Girl" for her awkward speech and doughy looks. The novel leaves a strong impression not only because Kate clearly lets unacknowledged mistakes from her rambunctious childhood rule her present life, but also because McMahon nails the cruelty girls inflict upon each other and the guilt-ridden ambiguity Kate felt and still feels for her long-lost friend -- something only finding resolution about the Potato Girl's fate can appease.
"The Island of Lost Girls" (Harper: 258 pp., $13.95) moves ambiguity to the forefront while also asking the reader to take a leap of faith into the absurd. Perhaps that's why in "the time it takes to soft-boil an egg" Rhonda, recently graduated from college but at personal and professional crossroads, continues to idle in her car as someone dressed in a rabbit suit kidnaps a young girl and spirits her away in his own vehicle. Or perhaps it's because Rhonda doesn't want to believe what's in plain sight because of the flashbacks to her own childhood and the disappearance of her own best friend Lizzie -- possibly a runaway, but possibly the victim of larger crimes. Or perhaps it's because the contrast of anthropomorphic rabbits with the dead seriousness of a missing child, clashing the lighthearted Mickey-and-Judy antics of young Rhonda and her friends with unexplained departures, allows McMahon to show why trusting what's in front of you and "shutting a valve" to the past is the wrong move. Because there's a strong probability very damaging secrets are buried underneath, festering long enough to inflict worse problems.
Stewart O'Nan takes to the missing person narrative as a duck does to city parks. The fit may not seem natural at first, but closer examination reveals this relationship was intended all along. O'Nan, after all, has long used his fiction to examine what happens after things fall apart, whether through the prism of a fast-food store ("Last Night at the Lobster"), a modern retelling of the book of Job ("A Prayer for the Dying") or the fate of a pregnant woman following her husband's prison sentence for murder ("The Good Wife"). Whereas thrillers thrust ordinary people into extraordinary situations, O'Nan's new novel "Songs for the Missing" (Viking: 290 pp., $25.95) flips the switch the other way, showing how that very situation allows the ordinary to come into its own sad and beautiful light.
Even if she hadn't disappeared into the ether of Lakeview, Ohio, with the parting words of "See you there, Squinky Square," Kim Larsen would have left a lasting impression upon the world. But she did, leaving those closest to her to wonder not only what happened but how they will carry on as the years tick off without answers. Her younger sister Lindsay, still saddled with braces at 16, tracks the case's status online and tries to humanize Kim and "the way she made fun of her glasses."
Her mother finds she misses her daughter but "she also missed keeping vigil" when mundane tasks of daily life had to be attended to -- as when she's wished an awkward Merry Christmas by a stranger and responds, "Please. We need all the good wishes we can get." Best friends Nina and Elise, as well as boyfriend J.P., grow up, go to college and shed and reclaim identities, but when they get together, Kim looms between them as a never-aging life force.
"Songs for the Missing" demands the reader steer clear of tabloid lures to delve into the small details; by doing so, the story rings with the overtones of quiet emotional truth. Too often the face on the milk carton becomes a dimensionless symbol, but by allowing his cast of characters to grow and change and to find their real selves, O'Nan restores humanity even among those whose fate remains in suspended animation.