What defines a man more than the kind of father he is? I thought of Martin Beck while reading One Boy Missing, a finely-drawn Australian take on the so-called 'depressive detective' genre pioneered by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Swedish detective, having a huge influence on crime writers everywhere, but particularly in Britain, and to a lesser extent in America.
Bart Moy has more reason than most to be depressed. He has left Adelaide after his son died and his wife left him. Now he's back where he grew up, in the bleak country town of Guilderton, living a sort of half-life, dealing with his cranky father, who still resents having to have sold his failed farm and moved to town many years before. Then a butcher, having a smoke in the alley behind his shop, sees a man grab a struggling boy and stuff him into the boot of his car.
Moy begins to investigate, and finds there are no missing children, there is no trace of who the boy might be. He's an outsider in his own town, both as a cop and as someone who left for the city, and as an outsider his asking awkward questions isn't always appreciated. And when he finds the boy the mysteries persist: who is is, who took him, and why? And the boy is not talking. At all.
Stephen Orr, whose previous novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize but here makes his 'crime fiction' debut, has built a story whose rhythms reflect Moy's life. It progresses slowly, goes over material again, misses points. But it is always moving toward a goal, which is not so much to solve the mystery but to put three broken souls back together. The missing pieces are all wound up in the relationships between fathers and sons, on the fine and precarious balance that makes us what we are, and challenges us to be something else. The empty atmosphere of the novel's setting reflects perfectly the emptiness at the core of its character; One Boy Missing is a misleading title, because there are literally two boys missing in this story, and figuratively a third. Moy's investigation is of life itself, and a powerful meditation on loss and rebirth.
Fatherhood plays a different role in Michael Sears' Black Fridays, which won a Shamus award and was nominated for an Edgar as best first novel. Jason Stafford is a former Wall Street mover and shaker who's just finished two years in prison for manipulating his deals. Unable to work on the Street again, he gets hired on the basis of 'it takes a thief' by an investment firm who need someone to look into possible problems in the accounts of a trader who died in a boating accident.
Of course Stafford begins to uncover something bigger than just one trader's mistakes, and soon he's caught between the firm's desire to keep things quiet, and the SEC and FBI trying to track down the bigger crimes.
Meanwhile, Stafford is trying to put his own life back together. When he was arrested he divorced his wife, to protect his assets, but rather than wait for him, she has returned to her home in Louisiana, and taken their autistic son with her. Risking a parole violation, Stafford flies down there to discover his son being kept in a darkened bedroom is his grandmother's house, while his wife lives elsewhere with her new beau. He brings the boy back to New York, and becomes a single father trying to cope with the needs of his child's very special world-view.
It's fascinating, because Sears is penetrating, almost clinical, in his descriptions of 'The Kid', as he is called, which make him one of the better-drawn characters. The story is better, in fact, when it's dealing with him direct, rather than using him as a way to humanise Stafford, but the point of course is that Stafford is learning through the great responsibilities of fatherhood, that there is something beyond the world of money. His own father, who owns a bar and still works it, has only a small part, but you can watch Stafford's attitude toward him change as he becomes more of a father himself.
It's also interesting that his ex-wife Angie, a former model who struck it rich with Stafford, is probably the biggest villain in the novel, certainly presented with more venom than any of the sharks or killers who populate the rest of the book. Self-centered, profligate, manipulative, Angie has all the worst qualities of the men Stafford deals with on the Street, but without the veneer Wall Street can hide behind. In that sense, Black Fridays is as much about Stafford moving away from her as it is about his moving away from his past life in the markets—and there's a paradox there because we see he hasn't really left the markets behind at all. Which makes it telling that possibly the weakest part of the book is the new woman Stafford finds. Wanda is the assistant to Roger, a magician who's Stafford's friend in their neighbourhood bar, and as the name and job implies, it's rather too much like someone waves a magic wand to produce her. Too good to be true, it will be interesting to see if the relationship survives into the second Stafford novel.
Sears writes like a financial version of John Grisham; Black Fridays moves with a relentless pace, slowing down only when The Kid takes over, and then, when he disappears, becoming even more frenetic. It couldn't contrast more with One Boy Missing, but at the heart both books are dealing with detectives who need to be put back together, who need to find themselves and their lives, and who need their sons to be able to do that.
One Boy Missing by Stephen Orr Text Publishing £10.99
Black Fridays by Michael Sears Duckworth Overlook £12.99
This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)