Lisa Jewell Digs Into Mystery's Missing Persons Cases

Posted by Cybil on April 24, 2018
Lisa Jewell's new mystery Then She Was Gone begins a decade after a teenage daughter disappears without a trace. That's when the missing girl's mother meets a charming single father whose young child seems…familiar. Jewell digs into the mystery genre's missing persons troupe to unearth some hidden reads for you!

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Two of the most fecund subjects to write about are dead bodies (Who did it? Why? How?) and missing people (Where have they gone? And most importantly, why?).

Someone is recorded as missing in the UK once every two minutes. That’s an average of 835 police reports every single day. From a writer’s perspective, that’s 835 stories every single day. And that’s just the UK.

There is something horribly compelling about the black hole left when someone disappears. No body to weep over, no coffin to lower, no grave stone to lay flowers upon. Just a terrible, yawning expanse of desperate nothing. An empty crib still rocking metaphorically in the backdraft of a child’s disappearance. A spot on the pavement where a friend stood the last time you saw them, where they said, "Goodbye, see you soon." The dip in the pillow where your wife last rested her head as she talked to you about dinner plans for that night, and then never came home. These are the places, the moments that the people left behind return to over and over looking for the thing that was said or was not said, looking for the reason, the answer, the key.

No one disappears without a reason. There is always a story. They have been murdered, they have been kidnapped, they have lost their memory, they have thrown themselves from a cliff, they are hiding from some peril, or they have simply shrugged off the shackles of an existence they didn’t like and wandered away to find one they like better.

The art of the missing person novel is in uncovering that story, retracing those steps, unpeeling the onion, layer by tantalizing layer to get to the absolute truth.

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It’s hard to find examples of missing person novels in the classics cannon. But one of the most extraordinary examples of an early psychological thriller—or, as they were known in Victorian times, "sensation novels"—is The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. Here the protagonist, a young, soulful art teacher called Walter, meets the missing person in the first chapter—the eponymous woman dressed in white—but doesn’t realize the significance until later on when he comes upon a woman in the north of England who bears a striking similarity to her. An extraordinarily well-rounded cast of characters tells the shocking tale.

Sometimes life imitates art and never was this truer than the time that Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days, later being found in a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire with no idea of why or how. Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade describes the author’s painstaking detective work as he sets about uncovering the truth about her mysterious disappearance. It’s a fascinating look at her life through the tiny clues that reveal both facets of her inner self and the truth about her missing eleven days.

Another bone-chilling real-life story of a missing person is that of a young British woman called Lucie Blackman who disappeared off the streets of Tokyo in 2010, her fate unknown until nearly eighteen months later. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry is a dark, shocking and exquisitely written account of Lucie’s story and of the aftermath of her body finally being found.

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In 2012 (Six years ago! Surely not!) Gone Girl was published. Gillian Flynn took the missing person novel, threw it onto a potter’s wheel and made something completely different out of it. Is she missing? Is she dead? Was she murdered? The answer of course being none of the above. But the public’s appetite was well and truly whetted and Gone Girl was followed—and continues to be followed—by a slew of edge-of-your-seat dramas about people disappearing; missing daughters (The Girl In The Red Coat by Kate Hamer), missing sons (The Missing by C.L. Taylor), missing teenagers (Daughter by Jane Shemilt) missing husbands (Vanished by Tim Weaver), missing wives (The Vanishing Year by Kate Moretti), missing sisters (Sister by Rosamund Lupton), and missing parents (Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh).

One of the biggest of the post-Gone Girl thrillers has to be The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. Here a tiny baby is the vanished one; Cora, taken from her cot in the night as her parents dine next door with their neighbors. It’s the kind of book that can’t be read in chunks, but must be inhaled in vast swathes as you yearn to find out what has happened to their baby.

I Am Missing by Tim Weaver, a little like my previous novel, I Found You, looks at being missing from the perspective of the missing person. Here, as in my own novel, a man is found on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. But unlike my novel, in which the mystery is unpicked by a kindly local mum, here we are in the hands of David Raker, a specialist in missing persons. But even he, a veteran of eight Tim Weaver novels finds things to baffle and astound in the unfurling of this missing person’s extraordinary story.

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And then there is Baby Doll by Hollie Overton. A little like the amazing Room by Emma Donoghue, this is the story of what happens in the aftermath of a disappearance. Lily was missing. Locked in a room since she was sixteen years old, abused and violated by her captor. She has carried and raised a child. And now she is free. How easy is it to recommence a life that has had the pause button pressed on it for six years? You’ve changed. The people you left behind have changed. The world you left behind is the same but unrecognizable. The freedom you craved has served you up yet another batch of problems.

And this was the conundrum I encountered whilst writing my current novel, Then She Was Gone. I’d reached the end not knowing if my missing girl should reappear or stay missing. I couldn’t decide which fate was worse for Ellie Mack. I wrote it one way and then my editor read it and told me to write it the other way. Both endings equally sad, but only one felt right.

But there is complete closure and that is the absolute key to the missing person novel; whether the missing person is found dead or alive, back home or a thousand miles away, the reader must know what happened to them; the explanation for their disappearance must be full and comprehensive.

Because no one ever disappears without a reason.

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Stevens Brilliant Blog post! Love a missing person mystery!

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

My daughter went missing for 7 years. It was hell. She was an adult and just disappeared. I was lucky and found her. Now we have a good relationship and I wouldnt be without her

message 3: by Nizia (new)

Nizia Awesome blog post. Missing people stories are so sad but I like to know why they disappeared. Thanks for these reading recommendations.

message 4: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Resuggan Lisa, please please post your alternative ending. I loved this book & the end had me in tears, but I’d love to read the ‘what if’ ending :)
Will certainly be reading some of the above mentioned books too!

message 5: by Chandra (new)

Chandra Claypool (WhereTheReaderGrows) This is fantastic!

message 6: by Judy (new)

Judy Odom Thanks Lisa for the above mentioned books; some I have read and the rest I am looking forward to reading !!! Very insightful article !!!! Love your books by the way !!!

message 7: by KatrinaReads (new)

KatrinaReads Very interesting post! I found some good suggestions for new books, as well. I completely agree about the closure. I always want to see an end to a missing person book.

message 8: by Nicki (new)

Nicki Brilliant blog post and some interesting book suggestions for me to note down. I loved Then She Was Gone and i also love Tim Weaver`s David Raker series. Personally i dont mind if a missing person case isnt resolved in the books that i read. People go missing all the time in real life and are never heard from again for various reasons. So if missing person story in a book doesnt have a resolution,to me at least it seems more realistic. I love stories about missing people in books and on tv, i loved Without A Trace and very watch the repeats.

message 9: by Birgit (new)

Birgit Thank you for directing me to this essay. I have read quite a few of the books you comment on here. What made me appreciate your book was how easy you made it seem that something like this could happen.

message 10: by Nicola (new)

Nicola Southall Fabulous thank you. Really enjoyed reading this. Also gives me a few more books I’ve not read to take a look at.

message 11: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Great Post. and is it a concidence that I have read four of these recommended ones and four are already on my too read list.

message 12: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Moren Thanks for this interesting essay. Then She was Gone is on my Kindle waiting to be read.

message 13: by Ann (new)

Ann Lewis Great blog. I've just finished Then She Was Gone. Loved it and found myself theorising over what happened constantly. I enjoyed The Woman in White too.

Olivia "So many books--so little time."" Very interesting, enjoyable essay. Reading the number of people who go missing in the UK made me wonder how many missing persons there are in America. And thanks for the listing of books--I'll be adding them to my list of books to look for.

message 15: by Adam (new)

Adam very interesting and enjoyable - thank you for adding that list of recommends - i will definitely add them to my reading list - really good and insightful.

message 16: by Jennie (new)

Jennie Rake Thank you, an inspiring essay on an intriguing genre. Has made me think about my own writing, not that I've dealt with exactly the same issue.

message 17: by Caroline (new)

Caroline I have to say, I think you are one of the most talented authors that I read, I love your books. Please keep up the good work, you make at least one person Very happy!
Very interesting blog, some definite novels to read next. Baby doll sounds good.

message 18: by Maria (new)

Maria Lee Thank you for this article 😉

message 19: by Katherine (last edited Apr 27, 2018 02:56PM) (new)

Katherine Hayward Pérez Thanks for the brilliant blog post. I reviewed Then She Was Gone Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell on my book blog, and loved it.


I still have to read I Found You I Found You by Lisa Jewell and when I'm finished, that review will be on my book blog,too.

message 20: by Sana (new)

Sana Sue wrote: "My daughter went missing for 7 years. It was hell. She was an adult and just disappeared. I was lucky and found her. Now we have a good relationship and I wouldnt be without her"

Write your story and your experience!

message 21: by Daphne (new)

Daphne Samantha wrote: "Lisa, please please post your alternative ending. I loved this book & the end had me in tears, but I’d love to read the ‘what if’ ending :)
Will certainly be reading some of the above mentioned boo..."


message 22: by Emma (new)

Emma Absolutely loved your book and the ending was tragic and poignant too.

message 23: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Berris Thank you very much for your recommendations. I used to be somewhat afraid to read missing persons books, especially if they involved a child. The grief can be felt so personally! I'm thinking of Deep End of the Ocean now. But, since I had read most of Lisa Jewell's books, I didnt hesitate to read Then She Was Gone and I am so glad I did. I recommended it to two of my sisters who each read it straight through. I'm looking forward to the next fantastic read from Lisa Jewell.

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