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ONE BOY MISSING
by Stephen Orr
Text Publishing, July 2015
288 pages
$15.95
ISBN: 1922147273


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Set in the heat, dust and community of the South Australian Mallee there is much that is visceral in ONE BOY MISSING. From the opening in which a young, vulnerable boy desperately tries to avoid a pursuer, to the character of DS Bart Moy who is back in Guilderton, possibly because his elderly father needs help, but mostly because he's running away from his past. He's lost and damaged, and there really doesn't seem to be much reason for him to be in the town that hasn't had a detective presence for years.

Until the inexplicable report of a kidnapping or abduction of a young boy, even though no child from the area is missing. It looks like it might be quickly resolved when a boy of about the right age is discovered camping out, and stealing from local shopkeepers to eat. Aged around eight or nine, he initially refuses to speak, and when he does, enough details are drip fed to provide more questions than answers.

ONE BOY MISSING is a slow reveal book. Everybody has something to hide, and lots to fear. The story of Moy's own past, and the breakdown of his marriage after the death of his young son builds, as does young Patrick's own story. The triggers that convince Patrick to trust, share and talk are built cautiously and carefully, in no small part due to mutual pain. The connection between the young Patrick and the irascible old man, Moy's father, is part of the strength here - Patrick's desire to reach out and George's need to let go, accept his age and infirmity which he can't do so easily with Moy. There are also secrets everywhere - in Moy's own family, in Patrick's past, in the crimes that have been committed.

The relationship between these three males is both the focus and strength of this book. It's touching, moving, worrying and informative. There's a real sense of truth and honesty about the difficulties between father and son, son and lost boy, men in general, men who make mistakes, lives that go off the rails and the way that they try to heal themselves. There's also a realness to the character of George in particular, which was frequently moving - an old man, the farm lost years ago, a wife dead years ago, a son that's moved on, age, infirmity and isolation looming.

There is crime at the centre of this story, as the impetus for Patrick to be running wild, as the reason for Moy to be searching for an answer. But that crime is less important than the evolving relationships. Most definitely a character study, ONE BOY MISSING weaves the past and present into mistakes and good deeds. It also has a few points to make about the good and bad of rural communities.

There's a sense of place as well, and a very realistic portrayal of a town, on the edge of a farming community struggling against the weather and the downturn in farming conditions. There is a cast of supporting characters - the casserole provider and curtain twitcher, new and old cops, hermits and eccentrics. For those that know those sorts of small Mallee towns it feels right, and the idea that a young boy, and his family might be in the area, and yet not known about, is stark and discomforting.

The pace also seems to reflect the place, and the characters. Laconic and unpressured Moy is prepared to give Patrick the time and space to settle, to relax. And the dialogue is pitch perfect. It's such a joy to read something where every word, every exchange is right. It works to read, and it works if you say it out loud. Cannot emphasis enough what a joy that was.

Not your traditional crime novel, ONE BOY MISSING is engaging, moving and sometimes discomforting. Love it when something like this comes along and breaks a few rules.

Karen Chisholm has been reading crime fiction since she could hold a book upright. When not reading she builds websites and pretends to be a farmer. Her website, AustCrimeFiction has been covering fiction from Australia and New Zealand since 2006: http://www.austcrimefiction.org/

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm, June 2015

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