Literary crime is a genre that doesn’t attract as much interest as popular crime fiction storylines on serial killers sought by main protagonists who are hampered in their search for said killer (could be a vampire) by a conflicted usually unappealing sexual relationship.
It does though reward the discerning reader with prose that is imaginative, the characters believable with dialogue that intrigues and moves an involving plot forward; what’s known as a really good read.
No question Stephen Orr’s latest crime novel, One Boy Missing is a really good read.
Involved from the start with the main character, Detective Sergeant Bart Moy, Orr’s literary skill at creating a character I empathized with and wanted to know more about was not because middle-aged flawed cops are unusual in the crime genre.
One Boy Missing tells the redemptive story of a guy whose failures, accidental or intended, seem insurmountable but are resolved in a beautifully crafted riveting mystery.
Pace, initially slow, the plot starts with Bart Moy returning to his home-town police station in Guilderton in the South Australian wheatbelt.
Bart’s expressed reason for requesting the posting is to care for his cantankerous elderly father, George.
The underlying reason concerns a recent divorce after the tragic death of his small son.
Bart is an emotional mess and Guilderton seems as good a place as anywhere to hide from a career and personal life where the up button is never pressed.
The locals don’t expect much from Bart and they are not disappointed; he has decided to take it easy while trying to convince his father to make some lifestyle changes in the realm of personal and home hygiene or move into an aged care facility.
There’s some wonderfully wry dialogue between George and Bart – the father son relationship deftly explored as Bart works hard to tip the balance in his favour.
The town butcher calls the police station – on smoko in the shop’s laneway he has seen a boy bundled into the boot of a car.
Bart responds to the call and with little information other than the butcher’s account of the abduction begins an investigation of the boy’s whereabouts.
No one appears to have mislaid a fair-haired, ten year old boy and checking the missing children’s report draws a blank.
Bart, the loss of his son always on his mind, is surprised by the intensity of his feelings, finding the missing boy is something he has to do; it will help assuage the guilt he feels over the circumstances that surround his son’s death.
With a superior officer hard on his heels, Bart interviews the locals. There are some finely drawn characterizations of local identities as Bart trawls the one horse and not much else, town of Guilderton.
Viewed as an outsider, the information he retrieves is scrappy and quite possibly untrue; a good opportunity for gossips to start malicious rumours or get back at their neighbours.
As mysterious as his disappearance is the boy’s reappearance.
Stealing food to survive, he is grabbed by Bart. Dirty and hungry, he appears to be physically unharmed but won’t talk about his abduction. A foster carer unable to manage the boy, Bart takes him home and tries a gentle approach to get the traumatized child to tell him his identity and if a crime was committed.
He takes the boy to George’s rundown cottage and the three of them get acquainted.
The growing relationship between the boy, Bart and George is well-written, the dialogue and interaction between the three generations sometimes sad, sometimes funny; the suspense maintained, Stephen Orr does not allow the situation to become sentimental or clichéd.
There is another murder, a woman’s body is discovered in a burnt out house.
Bart Moy, in charge of the investigation, has just begun the work of establishing the woman’s identity when a man’s body is found in the swamp outside a nearby town.
Are these death’s connected to the boy’s abduction? Bart’s pretty sure they are.
They certainly are, but in ways I didn’t anticipate in this suspenseful page turning story with a fast paced exciting conclusion.
Stephen Orr, similar to another great Australian crime writer, Garry Disher, really gets Australia’s small country towns – the book settings reek of dust and neglect, isolation and lack of opportunity taken for granted by city folk.
Detective Sergeant Bart Moy, an engaging character (like to hear more about him), for lovers of good writing, One Boy Missing is a must read.
Janet Walker, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014