Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2014

One Boy Missing, by Stephen Orr

One Boy MissingThe publisher’s blurb calls Stephen Orr’s new novel, One Boy Missing ‘literary crime’ but this novel is more about the search for hope than for a solution to a crime.

Detective Bart Moy returns to a dreary country town to look after his cantankerous old father, and finds himself trying to solve a case that picks open the barely-healed wound of losing his own child.  It is not until late in the novel that we learn how this happens so I won’t spoil things by explaining, except to say that Bart is really only going through the motions, plodding through the day’s work, absorbing the routine contempt that so many people dish out to police, and tolerating the nagging that he gets from his superior officer in the city.

And then there is a chilling report of a child being dragged into the boot of a car and abducted. What makes this case odd is that there are no parents frantic with worry about him.  It’s the local butcher who sees the abduction, and no one else.  Days go by and there are no reports of missing children.  It begins to look as if it never happened.   But then the child is found, traumatised and silent.  No one knows his name or identity.  It becomes Bart’s job to try to get this child talking, to find out what’s happened.  But whereas the standard tropes of a crime novel involve a drip feed of clues for the reader to try to assemble, the silence of this damaged child means that the only way that events can be pieced together is for the boy to tell his story including the parts he is at pains to conceal.  No amount of reader cunning could lead to a whodunit moment; it’s not the author’s intent.

There were two aspects of the novel that stretched credibility for me.  The first is that the boy – despite his initial silence – is remarkably fluent, relevant, and perceptive for a child of nine.  I teach nine-year-olds, and very few of them can estimate time the way this child does, and they tend to get side-tracked when they’re recounting events, often overloading their story with irrelevant detail.  The second is that the detective is allowed to have temporary custody of him.  While this allows for the development of trust and hope in a tender father-son relationship, it just doesn’t seem very likely that any small boy would be placed in the care of a single male policeman for any amount of time, whatever the circumstances, and especially not when there are worthy women in the community who could take care of him instead.  (Whether this is right or fair is not the issue.  My point is that suspicion of unrelated males with access to young children is the norm now, and the State which has a legal and moral responsibility for the welfare of children would be unlikely these days to take any risks, real or imagined).

Well, ok, there are children more capable than their years imply, and books don’t have to be realistic anyway.  But Bart’s custody of the child became a bit of a red herring for me; I began to wonder if the detective would end up transgressing.  He crosses several legal boundaries in the course of the book, and although it doesn’t seem to be in his character to prey on the child, that kind of ‘he wouldn’t do that’ argument has been shown to be sadly naïve.  So for some of the time I wondered if Orr were heading in that direction… it would have been a very different sort of book if he had.

The rural town setting is one that is increasingly familiar.  It’s one of those towns in decline.  There are derelict buildings, failed council attempts to boost the population, awful cafes selling inedible food, and rust and dust everywhere.  People know each other but take little notice of strangers or workers passing through.  Apart from the agricultural show, the footy team and the pub are the sole source of leisure activities, and the farmers are pessimistic about the price of their grain.  The melancholy atmosphere of the town is no solace for a man with issues of his own.  (He’s not quite the world-weary cop that is a staple of crime fiction because Bart’s own tragedy is the source of his misery, and nothing to do with his work.  But still, it’s a familiar kind of characterisation.)

There are some interesting threads to enliven the story, particularly the tale of an old momento mori photograph of a couple posing with their dead daughter propped between them – so that they would remember what she looked like.  This fear of forgetting is contrasted with Bart’s flashbacks which show that there is no relief from the images that haunt him.  But there is also a disappointing caricature of the worthy woman with her casseroles – I was not expecting this kind of stereotyping from a novelist as good as Orr.

Author: Stephen Orr
Title: One Boy Missing
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2014
ISBN: 9781922147271
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability

Fishpond: One Boy Missing
Or direct from Text.


Responses

  1. I am often becoming annoyed by crime shows and novels where scenarios are shown that you know just wouldn’t happen, like the boy being put into the custody of a single male you cite here. As soon as I start saying “That wouldn’t happen” the whole premise of the book becomes shaky for me.

  2. Yes, it’s a pity…
    I think I understand why he wrote it this way: he wanted to show redemption for the father and that it’s possible for a tender relationship that isn’t abusive to emerge (because after all, most men are not abusive) – but things being the way they are, one awful revelation from the Royal Commission after another, well, it fails the credibility test.


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