The Sisters in Crime website has recently been alive with a discussion of the differences, if any, between literary mysteries and what most of us read—generally called commercial or genre fiction. As I read Clare O'Donohue's debut mystery, Missing Persons, I gave some thought to that distinction and decided the book is the best of both worlds. What it is not: fast-paced, fingernail-biting, suspense-filled action. What it is: well-crafted, absorbing and clever.
Kate Conway is a free lance journalist who is assigned to launch a new program, "Missing Persons," by exploring (or as she admits, exploiting) the case of Theresa Moretti, a "perfect" young woman who disappeared a year earlier. As Kate interviews family and friends—a mother who insists her daughter is alive, a brother who is angry, two former boyfriends (one of whom appears not to have taken the affair as seriously as Theresa did), a friend who helped her get a community award, Kate discovers maybe Theresa wasn't as perfect as she seemed. There are a few puzzling details—like large bank deposits and a visit to a strip club.
Parallel to the story of Theresa Moretti's disappearance is that of Kate's marriage—or divorce. Her husband of some twenty years, Frank, left her for another woman and filed for divorce. Frank dies suddenly at the age of thirty-seven of an apparent heart attack, and Kate meets Vera, the other woman, at the hospital. In a strange way they bond, and yet Kate can never figure out whether she trusts Vera or not. At one point, she thinks Vera is about the closest thing she has to a friend—and finds the idea scary. Kate is plagued by suggestions—from a close friend, from a lawyer, from her in-laws—that Frank wanted to come back to her and by equally compelling evidence that he was happy for the first time in years and willing to commit himself to his artistic career. What is she to believe? And does she still love him, for all the good that will do now?
When Frank's death is pronounced suspicious, official attention focuses on Kate. And spooky things begin to happen at her house—a dead bird on the doorstep, then left on her porch days later in a box obviously taken from her own closet, her wedding pictures posted all over her living room as a cruel reminder of the times when she and Frank were happy. Her mother-in-law insists she must prove Vera killed him and brushes it off when Kate says she's the most prominent suspect.
And what kind of girl was Theresa Moretti really? Who wanted her dead—and stole the charms from her bracelet? Several suspects move to front and center throughout the novel, and just when you're sure you have it solved, you don't. You're as bewildered as Kate.
Kate, like many fictional female amateur sleuths, is full of self-doubt, contradictions and uncertainties. What distinguishes her is a wryly cynical cleverness. She is, she says, starring in her own personal true-crime show. Trying to analyze how she feels about Frank, she suggests that "excessively analyzing romantic relationships is like wearing a crop top. At some point you realize you don't have the stomach for it."
In many ways, this is a novel about relationships, and perhaps Kate pegs it for herself, Vera, and maybe even Theresa, when she says "Women believe a lot of things when they're in love. They believe that it will last forever, that it will fill all the gaps in their self-worth, that it will be enough to overcome any obstacle. And they believe he is just as much in love." That applies not only to Kate and Vera but to some of the men in this book.
O'Donohue, author of the Someday Quilts series, skillfully weaves these two plots together so that each highlights the other. The ending won't blow your socks off, but it will satisfy and leave you glad you read the book. As for literary or commercial? Who cares? I read once a long time ago that a good novel should leave the reader in a different place, however slight the difference, than before reading it. Hats off to Claire O'Donohue, because I believe she accomplishes that.
Claire O'Donohue is a freelance television writer and produce who has worked on shows for Food Network, the History Channel and truTV among others. She is the author of the Someday Quilts series and plans to do a series of Kate Conway novels. Visit her website.
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