The cover of Mo Hayder's latest novel, "Gone," shows the back of a little girl on a tricycle, pedaling off into the void. Not promising. Putting together the other available clues (the none-too-subtle title of the book, the plot summary on the book jacket), I deduced that this was yet another suspense story about vanished children. If it's possible for a subject to be at once horrifying and humdrum, this is the one.
Why this ongoing obsession in fiction with disappearing children? The subject is to contemporary literature what a maiden's loss of virginity was to the 18th-century novel - a core cultural anxiety that informs plots high- and low-brow. So common is this nightmare that it's become somewhat threadbare - which is why "Gone" didn't appeal, at first. But when I started reading, I discovered that the thing I was most dreading - that hoary plot - turned out to be the novel's greatest pleasure.
Maybe Hayder is also weary of this ubiquitous topic because in "Gone," she rings ingenious changes on it. Without giving too much away, I think it's permissible to say that by the end, the little girls who vanish throughout this tale turn out to be beribboned and pink-sneakered red herrings in a much more sinister game of retribution.
"Gone" is another entry in Hayder's series about the rough-hewn crew of police detectives who work in the Major Crime Investigation Unit of Bristol, England. At the opening of this story, Detective Inspector Jack Caffery has been summoned to an underground car park where, earlier that afternoon, a carjacking had taken place. A woman named Rose Bradley had been loading groceries into her Yaris when a man wearing a rubber Santa Claus mask ran down the entrance ramp of the garage. The assailant yanked Rose away from her car, grabbed the keys that were lying on the front seat and sped away. Rose's 11-year-old daughter, Martha, was in the back seat.
Caffery is acquainted firsthand with this particular horror: Thirty years earlier, his own brother was kidnapped, never to be seen again. Perhaps Caffery is, indeed, too close to the crime, because it's a colleague of his who makes the first crucial connection in the case. "Flea" Marley, the female director of Bristol's Underwater Search Unit (and a former romantic interest of Caffery's), pulls the dumbfounded detective aside and tells him that this is the third time in recent months that a little girl has been whisked away by a carjacker. The other two victims were returned soon after; days pass, however, and Martha remains missing.
What ensues is a ghoulish - and increasingly elaborate - game of wits between the police and the kidnapper. In addition to the creepy intellectual satisfactions of Hayder's plot, the setting here is agreeably terrifying: Marley has a strong suspicion that the kidnapper has been hanging around the Thames and Severn Canal, an especially grim section of which runs underground through an abandoned and structurally unstable tunnel. So, of course, Flea and her team just have to paddle into that tunnel to have a look around:
"Every few hundred yards they came to an air shaft: a six-foot-wide hole sunk more than a hundred feet from the surface to allow air in. . . . It would have been easier to explore the tunnel by dropping in through these air shafts, if each hadn't been protected by a vast rusting grille at the bottom. Debris had been able to fall through the grilles. . . . One had been used by a livestock farmer to dump animal carcasses. The weight of the dead meat had caused the grille to give way and tip a pile of stinking animal bones into the canal."
Flea is one of those obsessive detectives who heed intuition, even when cool common sense dictates that she should skedaddle out of that bleepin' tunnel as fast as her sodden feet will carry her. What she ultimately uncovers in the murk turns out to be something neither she nor readers could have possibly anticipated.
It's a tribute to Hayder's powers as a suspense writer that she completely turns the over-familiar premise of this novel inside out and upside down. The more pages of "Gone" that we captivated readers turn, the farther away we get from cliched thriller conventions.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.
by Mo Hayder
415 pp. $24