Book Review: Missing Person by Sarah Lotz

TitleMissing Person

Author: Sarah Lotz

Genre: Thriller

Publisher:  Mulholland Books
Publication date: September 3 2019
Hardcover: 480 pages

Reclusive bookseller Shaun Ryan has always believed that his uncle Teddy died in a car accident twenty years ago. Then he learns the truth: Teddy fled his home in Catholic, deeply conservative County Wicklow, Ireland, for New York and hasn’t been heard from since. None of Shaun’s relatives will reveal why they lied about his uncle’s death or why they want Shaun to leave the whole affair alone.

But Shaun has a burning need to find out the truth. His search is unsuccessful until he’s contacted by Chris Guzman, a woman who runs a website dedicated to matching missing-persons cases with unidentified bodies. Chris and her team of cold-case obsessives suspect that Shaun is looking for the “Boy in the Dress,” one victim in a series of gay men murdered by the same killer.

But who are these internet fanatics really, and how do they know so much about a case that has stumped police for decades? Soon armchair sleuths and professional investigators are on a collision course with a sadistic serial killer who’s gotten away with his crimes for far too long – and now they’re in his sights.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Review copy from Publisher

Format (e- or p-): ebook

Review

There are several stories here, none of them what I was expecting from Missing Person by Sarah Lotz. The story is less about horror or thrills and more about the humans involved in a cold case. It’s a novel about true crime aficionados, websleuths. Above all, Missing Person is a novel about closure and justice.

In County Wicklow, Ireland, 22-year old Shaun Ryan is still grieving the sudden death of his mother at the tender age of 32 when he was only 16. Shaun has been struggling with loneliness ever since, and finding a measure of happiness in the routine of his bookselling job and sharing his tiny room with his mam’s dog. He never really knew his father and his mom’s traditional, conservative family have basically washed their hands off him for many reasons, including the fact that he is gay.

One day, a bedraggled old family friend walks into his life to tell him that his uncle Teddy, his mother’s favourite brother is not dead and buried in Galway like Shaun had been told. He is told Teddy is alive, that he went to NY just before Shaun was born, running away from a family who cut him off for being gay. Shaun asks his uncle and aunt and they don’t deny it. They tell him that yes, that’s true but also that he should let go, that he should not go looking. There are threats involved.

But Shaun is SO taken with this idea. Firstly because his mother loved Teddy and always told Shaun how much he reminded her of his brother – “the black sheep of the family, like us” – but also because Teddy being alive and well gives him a measure of hope. Maybe he will invite Shaun to live with him in NY and his real life can finally begin. He looks online, he has an old pic of Teddy uploaded to a missing person’s website but no matter what he does, his investigation has a dead end. No one has heard from Teddy in nearly twenty years.

That’s where Missing-linc.com comes in, a website of websleuths dedicated to matching missing persons cases with unidentified bodies, ran by Chris @Ratking1. There is an open case, “Boy in the Dress”, of a murdered boy found in a pink dress whose body has never been identified regardless of the amount of work and research put into it by the amateur sleuths. That is, until they see a pic of Teddy and the case is ignited again. What the denizens of Missing-linc.com don’t know is that one of their own members is the killer himself, trying to direct the investigating away from him.

If you are interested in a thriller with a whodunit at its core, look elsewhere. We know from the start who the murderer is: a Dear John type con man who has murdered Teddy (and at least one more person) and who thrives on the adrenaline of being in the middle of the murder investigation as an incognito ally. It is horrifying and scary but thankfully his viewpoint the chapters are not about sympathising with him. His chapters are perhaps where the novel’s true horror lies: one of the questions asked in Missing Person relates to the apparent dearth of serial killers in our time and it is pointed out that this may be so because serial killers get their kicks online – as trolls, as abusers, as masked investigators in their own cases. But that’s not the focus of the novel though- although the characters are on a collision course from the get go.

I am glad to report that most of the narrative moves away from centring on the culprit to centre on Teddy, Shaun and the friends he makes through Missing-linc.com. It is about those left behind and those who work to solve the case. The latter includes Chris herself as well as her friend Ellie, a young stay-at-home mom who has worked so hard to solve this particular case because it happened right on her doorstep. Ellie, Chris and their online friends all straddle that line between obsession and dedication, between personal fulfilment and working for a greater good and the novel examines these topics with a lot of compassion and understanding of the deep connections that such endeavours often create. It was lovely to see Shaun come out of his shell and grow and be able to form connections with people who supported and who came to love him. There is also a lot about family secrets and shame, about Ireland’s complicated history of horrid treatment of LGBTQIA.

So basically, I came for the thrills and stayed for the dysfunctional found family, for justice for Teddy and closure for Shaun.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

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