Before She Disappeared
Lisa Gardner adds an exciting new character to her mystery lexicon in Before She Disappeared: Frankie Elkin, a recovering alcoholic with a new addiction that helps control her unhealthy urges – the energy she once used to chase down her next drink is now used to find missing people.
Frankie’s brought closure to fourteen families by finding out exactly what happened to their errant kin and she’s determined to do the same for Angelique Badeau’s Aunt Guerline and brother Emmanuel. According to all the stories Frankie’s seen online, Angelique went to school as usual one day – and never came home. It was as if she just vanished into thin air; she doesn’t appear anywhere on the numerous cameras in the area, there’s no physical evidence of a kidnapping, and as is usual in that particular location, no one saw anything. Angelique has been gone for eleven months, so law enforcement is no longer actively looking for her- which makes it the perfect time for Frankie to begin her search.
The first step in Frankie’s hunt is to move to the girl’s home turf – Mattapan, a Boston-Haitian neighborhood with a rough reputation. The next step is to get a job. Frankie’s a meticulous researcher and she already knows where she wants to work and live – Stoney’s, a local pub with an apartment for lease directly above it. She sweet-talks the owner into giving her a position and letting her rent the flat, and then she heads straight to the Badeau residence; it is crucial that the family involve her in the investigation. They can request police reports, ask the cops to talk to her, tell her where to start looking – without the Badeau’s help Frankie will be stonewalled by officials and locked out of the now cold case search for Angelique.
They are understandably wary of this strange white woman trying to involve herself in the hunt for a missing black immigrant girl. Frankie explains her process, assures them she’s not after money and cajoles them into introducing her to the neighborhood police liaison officer. After checking out her credentials and talking to her in person, he in turn tells lead detective Dan Lotham about her.
Lotham isn’t excited about having Frankie involved in his case. He’s done a thorough job of searching for the missing teen himself. However, Frankie quickly demonstrates she is the real deal by finding information that had been missed in the initial investigation, thus proving to both him and the family that her dedication and skills will bring results. Then she finds the next clue and the next and quickly realizes that Angelique has been leaving a trail of breadcrumbs all along… miniscule hints as to what she’s caught up in that will result in an explosive, shocking conclusion.
This is an engaging story which will keep you riveted from start to finish. The irascible, damaged, tenacious Frankie is a fantastic heroine. We know she has had pain in her past – not just as a result of her drinking, but from the price her drinking forced others to pay. The ghosts of those she hurt – one man in particular – haunt her. She’s a clear headed, no-nonsense sleuth in spite of her demons – maybe even because of them – and she is determined to alleviate the suffering that families experience due to a relative disappearing. It’s an admirable quality and one that quickly endears her to the reader.
I appreciated that the story didn’t go about solving the mystery by highlighting police ineptitude. Instead, we discover there was nothing shoddy about Detective Lotham’s search for Angelique – he really had tried hard to find her and run a meticulous investigation. Lotham is another great character – driven, dedicated and like Frankie, a touch irascible and obsessive. I liked how these two persistent, motivated people tentatively begin working together, slowly learning what a dynamic duo they are. There are hints of the possibility of a romance as their partnership starts to blossom but will they act on them? Since this is a mystery and not a romance, I’ll leave that for you to find out.
With all I loved about the book, though, I had some issues. Most mysteries are unbelievable and can be easily picked apart by in depth analysis, and the great ones keep you so involved, move you so quickly through the story you simply don’t have time to notice the flaws. Ms. Gardner does a fantastic job with the pacing – we move briskly from one point to the next – but I still found the character of Frankie so fantastical that I didn’t need to think too deeply to find her implausible. She is a lousy employee, yet gets to keep her job. She’s a total stranger and yet witnesses talk to her easily; she just happens to have the right people present when she is asking just the right questions… combined, these aspects really stretched my suspension of disbelief.
The second point is a quibble and is mentioned only because I know that a lot of people right now read books through a political lens, so I want to offer a mild warning regarding white savior complex in the text. Frankie describes herself as “an average middle-aged white woman with more regrets than belongings” and as having “no special skills or training”. She “finds missing people – particularly minorities. . . When the police have given up, when the public no longer remembers, when the media have never bothered to care”. Again, this is very admirable. But it is also a touch disconcerting, that this broke, damaged – but dedicated – white woman could come into a black community, served by minority police officers and detectives – and solve a case they couldn’t. The author very wisely gives no suggestion of incompetence to the cops, and she populates the community with caring, kind, engaged individuals. She goes out of her way to paint Angelique, her friends and her brother as smart people who will be able to do great things in the world. Nevertheless, it was a touch discombobulating to have one of the only white characters in the tale be the primary hero who swoops in and solves a puzzle no one else was able to.
I want to emphasize that I enjoyed Before She Disappeared despite its quirks. It’s a fun, quick mystery that is highly enjoyable if you don’t stop and think about it too much. Ms. Gardner is a talented wordsmith whose smooth prose, skillful characterizations and energetic pacing make her books a joy to read. I would recommend this to fans of the suspense genre, with the caveat that it definitely has a few issues which keep it from the perfection the author is frequently able to attain.