‘Mary and Geordie have lost a child ...Why should they feel they are entitled to grieve? It’s so commonplace.’ Paul Torday’s latest novel is full of such assertions. We are in the Border country, in 2010, and three children have disappeared. Neither the police nor social services can be persuaded to take much interest. ‘Tell you what,’ says the editor of the local paper to Mary, distraught mother of missing Theo, ‘I’ll diary it. If he hasn’t come back in a year’s time we’ll run an anniversary special on him. I can’t say fairer than that.’
The unlikeliness of this response, and the inauthenticity of the tone, undermine what is in some ways a well-crafted novel. There are clumsinesses. Torday makes a not-even-half-baked attempt at local speech patterns and vocabulary, throwing in only the occasional ‘nowt’ or ‘wor lass’.Would Mary and Geordie, a working-class couple in a two-bedroom flat, call their ten-year-old’s room ‘the nursery’? Why would a forester who works outside all day, every day, have a pale face? Would a bright, bookish nine-year-old girl choose The Gruffalo from the mobile library? Why does so much rest on the possession of a certain photograph, when making a copy would be the work of moments?
Phrases and details are often repeated, perhaps to give an air of verisimilitude. ‘Willie parks, walks up the garden path and presses the doorbell’; there’s a lot of this kind of scene-setting. Over and again, some clue or other is described as ‘the missing piece of the jigsaw’. When characters take coffee we are assured that they then ‘sip the hot liquid’.
Despite such flaws, there is momentum, and there is excitement, albeit of a horrible kind. Willie Craig is a restless young man desperate to become an investigative journalist. He galvanises the hitherto indolent Norman Stokoe, so-called ‘Childer’s Czar for the North-East’, whose interpretation of his role to date has amounted to the conscientious consumption of endless expense-account lunches. Together they set out to unravel the mystery of the missing children, aided by Pippa, the attractive PA, who provides the love interest. Oddly, she wears ‘trousers over a white blouse’.
The voice of Theo, speaking to them in their dreams, puts them on the trail of Gabriel Merkin, a child-killer released from Broadmoor in circumstances which indicate corruption in high places. Merkin, born with a deformed jaw and without a heart, is an all too credible psychopath; ‘funny and sad mean nothing to him’. He is obsessed with taxidermy and embalming. Tiring of dead animals, he turns his macabre attentions to children. The description of his activities is truly chilling, though I find I’ve reached an age at which I take no pleasure in being thus chilled.
After Merkin, the most successful creation is Norman Stokoe. Before his abduction, Theo bore marks resembling the stigmata. This arouses Stokoe’s dormant conscience; his awakening is quite moving. Otherwise, the characters have been bused in from central casting; they have no natural connection with one another. The plot is ingenious, but not credible. Disparate elements are stitched together so that the novel feels like one of Merkin’s pieces of taxidermy — ‘a dead cat with the head of a doll; a calf’s head sewn onto the body of a sheep’. The sense of place is strong, especially the scenes set in Kielder Forest, but all in all this is Enid Blyton with an X certificate.