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by Cath Staincliffe
Allison & Busby, June 2007
271 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0749080256

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

PI Sal Kilkenny is busy. She is tracking down the birth mother of rock musician Bob Swithinbank, she has been commissioned by Trisha Marlowe to find her friend Janet Florin who has apparently walked out on her husband and two children, and she is looking for Iranian asylum seeker Berfan for his brother Ramin. On top of that her best friend, Diane, has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her long-time housemate Ray has fallen in love with her and Sal has to decide on her feelings about him.

There is so much to commend in this book. Cath Staincliffe is about as close as it gets to a realistic PI writer (you could say naturalistic but we won't get into that!) This needs qualifying, as for some reason realistic is often taken in the context of mystery fiction to indicate violence, gangs, psychopaths, noir; which of course are not in the least realistic if one is considering most people's experience of life.

This is not to say that Staincliffe's view is in the least rose-tinted, but, in the first place, Sal Kilkenny's private life is decidedly ordinary. Considerable attention is given to the pond she is digging in the garden for instance. Her dilemmas and problems, about Ray and Diane, are normal, everyday dilemmas and problems. As a first-person narrator she is a comfortable, if a tad earnest, companion. When a traumatic event happens Sal is traumatised and Staincliffe's description of this is excellent.

The same thing is true of Staincliffe's powerful and accurate location writing. As Val McDermid is quoted as saying of her work, Staincliffe writes of "the mean streets and leafy suburbs of Manchester." The 'and' is very important both features of Manchester are present, as is the renascent and booming city centre, and trips to inner-city Liverpool and the pleasant Yorkshire dales. Motorways and their specific features a particular junction for instance are carefully depicted. This is true realistic writing if by realistic we denote ordinary experiences of average people in 21st century England.

This is also true with her cases. The asylum seeker is a pro bono one (for Sal is very much a PI with a conscience leftish, greenish), but she has her living to make and while fully engaged in the other two cases, she is clear about the fact that she is charging her clients. And so those clients have to be people who are in a position to pay for a PI; not super-rich but certainly earning. Once again the approach is realistic.

In all these areas Staincliffe's writing is commendable and a wonderful tonic in the face of the absurd gang-lords, spooks and other absurdities who often pose as realistic in other mysteries. But . . .

The but is that MISSING also shows the limitations of realism. This is clearly shown by the fact that the three cases do not in any way coincide. Certainly they do not coincide at a plot level. But even thematically there are no real connections. We just have a PI pursuing three separate cases and trying to muddle her way through her private life. Yes, each of the cases is interesting and compelling enough (the best is that of the asylum seeker which is powerful and engaging, the only one with any mystery that of Janet Florin and the revelation there is not especially surprising).

But as an integrated mystery novel . . . well MISSING just isn't one. An enjoyable, interesting read with fine location writing? Yes. Realistic? Yes. But a good mystery? Not in my judgement. You need more than realism for that.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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