Review: ‘Missing Person’ by Sarah Lotz

From acclaimed horror writer Sarah Lotz, hailed by Stephen King as “vastly entertaining,” a new novel about a group of amateur detectives infiltrated by the sadistic killer whose case they’re investigating.
Reclusive Irish bookseller Shaun Ryan has always believed that his uncle, Teddy, died in a car accident. It’s only on his mother’s deathbed that he learns the truth: Teddy, who was gay, fled the Catholic, deeply conservative County Wicklow for New York decades earlier. Shaun finds no sign of him in New York or anywhere else–until he comes across the unsolved murder of a John Doe whose description matches Teddy’s.

Desperate for information, Shaun tracks down Chris Guzman, a woman who runs a website dedicated to matching missing persons cases with unidentified bodies. Through Chris’s site, a group of online cold case fanatics connect Teddy with the notorious “Boy in the Dress” murder, believed to be one of many committed by a serial killer targeting gay men.

But who are these cold case fanatics, and how do they know so much about a case that left the police and the FBI stumped? With investigators, amateurs, and one sadistic killer on a collision course, Missing Person is Sarah Lotz at her most thrilling and terrifying.

From Goodreads.

DETAILS

Publisher: Mulholland Books

ISBN: 9780316396646

Date read: 22 June 2020

Review

Even if Sarah Lotz wasn’t one of my favourite authors, I would’ve found it difficult to talk myself out of buying her latest novel. I first fell in love with her writing in The Three – a twisty horror novel that mimics the style of “found footage” films like The Blair Witch Project. I impulse-bought The Four and The White Road without looking further than her name on the covers, and wasn’t disappointed with either. But when I found Missing Person just before the pandemic hit, I knew I was in trouble of losing touch with reality for a day or two. This one was going to need all my attention.

Lotz’s latest novel is a blend of two of my strongest guilty pleasures: crime fiction and true crime cold case websleuths. At its centre is the connection of a missing person’s case to an unidentified body on Missing-Linc.com, where amateur detectives congregate in an attempt to solve cases left to go “cold” by the police and the FBI. Identifying the “Boy in the Dress” causes an entanglement of online personalities with the people behind their usernames, including the nephew of the victim. Adding to the tension is the presence of the murderer in the inner circle of websleuths, watching their every move and even contributing to the “hunt” for the killer. Lotz provides flashes into his psyche, building a complex web of intrigue that keeps the reader utterly engrossed.

The angle is an interesting one for a thriller, and one I was excited to read. Lotz raises questions not only about the effectiveness and efficiency of the police force (particularly with regards to the internalised homophobia that prevents them from solving Teddy Ryan’s murder), but also about the various moral complications of “websleuthing” in the digital age. Surprisingly, the police force is largely absent from the plot, with only a few ex-cops and useless police contacts making an appearance. The amateur detectives, on the other hand, illustrate through their very existence that the police are not a prerequisite for crime-solving, nor are they necessarily worth the billions of dollars meant to protect the public from criminals and bring murderers to justice. Sure, the websleuths don’t get everything right – their actions, when unchecked, cause heightened trauma for the survivors of violent crime – but Lotz presents them as a constantly evolving force willing to learn from their mistakes. For all their flaws, the best of them hold themselves accountable for their actions and balance out curiosity with caution. They are perhaps not conventional crime-fighting heroes, but they certainly achieve more than their uniformed compatriots.

This is just one of many ways in which Lotz subverts the genre into which she writes. Also significant is the slow-burn, almost halting pace of its character-driven plot, which can be frustrating for the seasoned crime-novel fanatic seeking an adrenaline-fuelled rush to the climax. The climax, too, is surprisingly subdued; anyone craving that jolt of vindication typical of thrillers will be sorely disappointed. Lotz cheats her readers out of the cathartic rush of endorphins they’ve come to expect from the genre, focusing our attention on the less glamorous reality of violent crime and its aftermath.

Missing Person is as much about the psychology of people intrigued by cold cases as it is about the psychology of a killer. Lotz investigates a number of complex relationships, including internet-born friendships that bleed into real life, familial ties fraught with secrets and betrayal, the tension between survivors of violent crimes and the everyday people swept up in the story, the bond between killer and victim, and – of course – the evil act that entangles them all. But her real achievement is in implicating not only her group of misfit websleuths, but also the not-so-casual observer of it all: her reader.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Recommended to: Readers wanting a little more out of their thrillers.

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