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This review is written for those who have never had the pleasure of reading a Lisa Gardner mystery starring Frankie Elkin. There are a lot of badly written novels out there. This is not one of them. By the way, this review of BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED refers to the newly published mass-market paperback. The hardcover version was released in January.
Dramatis personae: Frankie Elkin, middle-aged, plain non-practicing alcoholic, frequently wracked by nightmare and laden with grief for the loss of a beloved man in her life who, carrying her meager possessions, arrives in Boston to solve a cold case; Angelique Lovelie Badeau (LiLi), aged 16, missing; her BFFs at the high school Angelique attended, beautiful Kyra and Marjolie who is merely cute; Guerline Violette, CNA, immigrant from Haiti and LiLi's aunt, holding things together for the sake of LiLi's brother, Emmanuel; Livia Samdi, aspiring CAD designer, daughter of a house of hopelessness, missing from her high school for eight weeks; her brother JJ, a gangbanger; Livia's mom Rosaline, who has so little hope and faith that she has not even reported her daughter missing; Dan Lotham, Boston homicide cop and lead investigator on Angelique's case, technically savvy, tired, alone, sad, yet loving and committed to creating a better world; Ricardo O'Shaughnessy, community liaison officer who claims that his mother was Haitian and his father was Irish, I kid you not; Charlie, AA sponsor who has seen it all yet still accepts each dawn as a beginning, one day at a time; Stoney, Black barkeep who extends his trust and hires skinny white Frankie Elkin, who sticks out like a sore thumb, who sticks her nose in everybody's business, yet who needs a job; Viv, Stoney's wise, funny short-order cook, who gives Frankie a roadmap to survival in Mattapan, Boston, Angelique's immigrant Haitian community; a cat with a sense of theatre; various stone-cold killers; cops, crowds exiting buses, gabby high-school kids, the women who are the glue to the community and the glimmers of light; cooks whose experienced Haitian fare makes them some of the best in Boston.
In this novel, among other things, I remember the Haitian food served in neighborhood joints and commercial bakeries all over Mattapan. Food is, on some days, the only relief from poverty, dirt, hopelessness, loss, and homesickness. Lisa Gardner is not one of those authors who tells a convoluted plot with twists thrown in every five pages and imagines that those things create a believable world on paper. She knows, as it takes a sensitive thinker to know, that sometimes a sauce with a special spice to dress a burger off the grill, or a cup of coffee in a paper cup made strong, with sugar and cream, or a meat pie with grease stains leaking through the paper wrapper, are tenuous connections between immigrant lives in Boston, on the edge, and a faraway homeland, the repository of memory and dream. The smells of Haitian cooking pervade BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED.
The title of the novel refers to the last few months, days, and hours before Angelique seemed to fall off the face of the earth. The title emphasizes that sometimes, with a missing person, the act of becoming that absence is prefaced by ordinary days and hours, days and hours seemingly exactly like those which came before. However, it is something in these days and hours, something overlooked, unimportant, that those who work cold cases must sift and find. BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED is actually about high-tech (and high-dollar) forgeries, done with the aid of 3-D printing and CAD programs. Technology surrounds lives in Boston. But Frankie Elkin is successful because she knows that gadgets such as video cams or cell-phone towers lull people into thinking that, if these technological wonders cannot solve crime, it cannot be solved. Elkin seeks facts by knocking on doors, interviewing people who don't welcome her intrusion, and by sometimes simply standing or sitting where the missing person stood or sat. By walking a mile in the shoes of the missing, one enters that person's mind and understands what drove her to act as she did, and perhaps what drove her dark double, her abductor.
This novel is successful because its characters are lovingly written. They are alive. There are reasons they act as they do. In the pages of this book, people laugh to keep from crying, people reach out to hold someone's hand because that is the only thing that can save us. Of course, the bad guys don't have integrity, but most of the people on the crowded city streets in this immigrant Boston suburb radiate integrity. There are gangbangers on every corner. But there are also people who go out of their way to talk to a stranger, to have faith and indeed create the only faith there is in a world whose drivers are, after all, mechanism and force. I think I may take a stroll down the aisles of my small town's used bookstore, see if I can score one of Gardner's 22 other efforts, secret it away in a brown bag, hoard some hours that I may devote to its pages. Fiction is falsehood. But good fiction is the lie that tells a truth.
§ C. Downs, a retired professor of American Literature who lives in a small town in South Texas, occasionally enjoys the pages of a well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, September 2021
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