There can be, for a parent, no more terrible pain than to have a missing child. Is she alive or dead? Did she run away, or was she kidnapped? Given the powerful emotions at work in such cases, novelists are inexorably drawn to missing-child stories. I must have read a dozen of them in recent years. A few have been good, but even the mediocre ones are likely to grip the reader simply because we want an answer: Where is that child?
At the start of David Bell’s first novel, “Cemetery Girl,” Tom and Abby Stuart’s only child, Caitlin, has been missing for four years. She was 12 when she took their dog for a walk near their home in Ohio and never returned. The parents’ different ways of dealing with the ordeal have almost destroyed their marriage. Abby is ready to “move on,” while Tom refuses to give up hope. Their disagreement is symbolized by a memorial service that Abby has planned, when family and friends will gather in a cemetery, around a headstone inscribed with Caitlin’s name and the dates: 1992-2004. Tom bitterly resents this surrender, just as he resents his wife’s involvement with a trendy megachurch and its leader, Pastor Chris. He even suspects her of having an affair with the affable clergyman.
Amid this emotional chaos, hope suddenly arises. A lawyer directs Tom to a stripper and sometime prostitute who claims to have recognized Caitlin from a police photo when a middle-aged man brought her into her strip club. The stripper works with a police artist, and a photo of the thuggish-looking man is published. Soon Caitlin is found. She is 16 now, surly and profane. At first, she refuses to speak to her parents. When she does, she declares she loves the man who seized her and wants only to return to him. Then the man is arrested, and she refuses to testify against him. We read on to learn the outcome of this horror story, despite several flaws in its telling.
Like his narrator, the author is a college professor, and the story unfolds smoothly. My problem with the novel is that his characters keep behaving in maddeningly irrational ways. Yes, intelligent people do stupid things — all the time — but Bell too often goes with what is dramatic rather than what makes sense. The parents continue to bicker even after their daughter has returned and is in desperate need of both their love and professional treatment. What little treatment she receives is from an untrained volunteer therapist and from a psychiatrist whom neither father nor daughter likes.
Tom has a troublesome half-brother, Buster, whose background includes rehab and an arrest for indecent exposure; this makes the police, Caitlin’s mother and the reader all wonder if he was involved in his niece’s disappearance. Buster exists mainly to be suspicious, to start fights and to ask obnoxious questions like whether Tom is still sleeping with his wife. A police detective working the case is probably as annoying and distrustful as most detectives would be. He’s also made to utter the novel’s most improbable line of dialogue, when he says of a petty criminal, “He was an all-around malcontent and noncontributing member of our society.”
The detective has reason to be grumpy because, in the great tradition of crime fiction, Tom invariably takes misguided action himself when he should turn things over to the police. Regrettably, Bell tries to lighten what is by its nature a painfully dark story with two developments that are intended to leave readers feeling better than we have any right to feel.
Rays of hope, in a story like this, should not be casually dispensed. If you’re going to write about the kidnapping and rape of a child, you owe it to the reader — and to real-life victims of such crimes — to pull no punches. Consider Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” which begins with a boy being abducted and raped and proceeds to show that he never recovered from the ordeal. Or read Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know,” suggested by the actual disappearance of two Washington-area sisters in 1975, a novel of subtlety and depth that never departs from the path of absolute realism. “Cemetery Girl” isn’t a bad novel, but it’s a long way from equaling either of those powerful performances.
Anderson reviews mysteries regularly for Book World.
By David Bell
New American Library. 391 pp. Paperback, $14