Tuesday 11 September 2018

The Uncomfortable Truth of the Missing by Sarah Ward

The missing hold an enduring fascination for us. As rational beings we demand explanations. When a murder takes place, we want to know who did it and why. Any evidence of the supernatural is met with a raft of scientific theories and justifications. Even the least scientific amongst us anxiously wait for explanations. Take secrets. Facebook, in particular is full of them. In any one day my timeline is full of posts recommending that we ‘watch this space’ and ‘an exciting announcement coming soon’. It prompts us to return to social media even though we know it’s eating into our writing time. Why? Partly, because we want resolution. We can’t abide the thought of the unknown. And generally, in life, very little remains completely unexplained.

The missing, however, taunt us with their absence. For those who have voluntarily disappeared, the not knowing is excruciating for their family. Near me, the relatives of teenager Andrew Gosden, who left his home in 2007, still post updates ten years later asking for information on his whereabouts. They know he made it as far as London and, after that, nothing. I can only imagine how excruciating the not knowing is for them. And, of course, not every absence is voluntary. I grew up in south Manchester and the still missing victims of the Moors murderers was an ever constant reminder to us children of how not every adult was trustworthy.

The missing are popular feature of crime novels. From Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the mystery posed by absence makes for compelling plots. For when someone’s movements are unaccounted for, the potential for criminal intent isn’t far behind.  The missing have featured in all my books.  In Bitter Chill, partly influenced by those murders on Sadleworth Moor, tells the story of a young girl who goes missing in the 1970s as the devastated community close in to protect their children. 

In A Deadly Thaw, a husband goes missing for fifteen years util he is killed in an a disused mortuary.  Here, I wanted absence to cover up something more sinister.

My latest book, A Patient Fury, also has a missing person at the heart of the story. Elizabeth Winson who in 1980 pins a note of her shop stating that she’ll be ‘back in two minutes’, is never seen again. Police are convinced that she is a victim of her controlling husband but her adult children are less sure. Elizabeth Winson was a bored wife desperate to escape the confines of a small town and a verbally abusive marriage.

The legacy of Elizabeth’s disappearance is what obsesses us most about the missing. Are they out there in the world leading a parallel life or is there or a more sinister explanation? There’s also the sense of time in suspension. We get older while that person remains perpetually frozen in time. Husbands remarry, children grow up and have their own offspring and, all the time, in the back of their minds is the question. What really happened?

My books have dual timelines. This is partly a reflection of the Peak District setting where crimes often have a long genesis. I wanted to have a contemporary disappearance to balance the devastation wrought by Elizabeth’s vanishing. This time there is no easily identifiable missing person but a shadowy figure in the background. It’s a modern take on the concept of missing. Who is the fourth presence that my detective Connie Childs can sense but not identify?

In A Patient Fury, as in all my books, I want the missing to recover their voice, however uncomfortable the truth might be. I’m clearly as bad as the next person in ultimately needing motive and enlightenment.

A Patient Fury by Sarah Ward (Published by Faber & Faber)

 When Detective Constable Connie Childs is dragged from her bed to the fire-wrecked property on Cross Farm Lane she knows as she steps from the car that this house contains death. Three bodies discovered - a family obliterated - their deaths all seem to point to one conclusion: One mother, one murderer. But D.C. Childs, determined as ever to discover the truth behind the tragedy, realises it is the fourth body - the one they cannot find - that holds the key to the mystery at Cross Farm Lane. What Connie Childs fails to spot is that her determination to unmask the real murderer might cost her more than her health - this time she could lose the thing she cares about most: her career.


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