Review of Missing Children

Missing Children

This is a bizarre, and in places very violent, mystery set in an imagined suburb of Ottawa. In his third work set in totally-normal appearing Troutstream, author Gerald Lynch takes us on a wild ride during a baking late-summer week in the burbs. The writing is beautiful, but the story is difficult. Of course many crime stories contain the satirical element; it is usually basic, if not essential, to the investigating cop’s point of view as he/she works through a degraded society in search of a perpetrator. But no matter how mawkish and damning the cop’s voice, crime remains the focus. Whereas in Missing Children the cop is secondary to a victimized father. Yes, a missing child is at the crux but that focus quickly blurs. It takes time (and patience) before we understand that this tale is dark social satire wearing a loose-fitting crime novel hat. If you hang in, you will laugh. And cry. And be delighted by a gifted writer’s skills. But through the self-obsessed narrative voice of his main character, Gerald Lynch makes you work to get there.

Dr. Lorne Thorpe is a respected oncologist, to some, a hero. To his wife Veronica and kids - adolescent son Owen and “tween” daughter Shawn - he is a sarcastic joker who never knows when to quit with the glib come-backs and one-liners. Lorne loves his family but he cannot connect. The Thorpe household is going through the sort of rocky time most readers will recognize. It explodes one Sunday when Lorne takes daughter Shawn to a museum exhibit and she disappears as he is momentarily distracted by his own clever, peevish stream of thoughts. 

Enter investigator Kevin Beldon, stolid, in no way cowed by the impatient, panicking doctor. Add the grim backdrop of a serial killer currently stalking a downtown area, taking young hookers, who may now be hunting farther afield. A devastated mother, an emotionally wounded adolescent son. We know exactly where we are viz. crime stories. We expect the well-respected doc to expect special treatment. We expect the cop to be cool. Just as we instantly recognize a modern family going through a difficult time that will crystalize in crisis. These are crime story clichés. Lynch sets them up; then, on the strength of Lorne Thorpe’s narrative voice, breaks through them, leading us to a stranger place where fantasy rules. In the process, our mystery-reading instincts get confused.

You’ve heard of the “unreliable narrator”. (If you are not into literary theory, perhaps you’ve seen the film The Usual Suspects.) In Missing Children, Lorne Thorpe is both narrator and central witness to the snatching of his child. He has to be pumped for information, both personal and professional: is there someone in his life who would do this awful thing? Between the rational, hyper-critical doctor, the cranky neighbour, the bloody-minded joker and (thanks to a steady intake of stress-flattening scotch and pills) the foggy, sentimental, self-pitying dad, Lorne’s view of things at home and at work unwinds like a phantasmagoric parade, often funny, just as often grotesque and unsettling.

Beyond the typical Thorpe family and a cop called Kevin, the cast of characters verges on the surreal. Wy (whom we never meet but is a central reference point throughout) is a quasi-mystic kid’s TV host who travels with a wise goat seducing adoring children’s souls. Jake is a hyper-kinetic Downs child who lives next door, whose mum has taught him the fine art of victimhood. Bob is a dwarfish holistic healer who has a magic touch with kids. Larry and Gary are ogre-like twin bachelors running a corrupt building business, feeding on contracts rubber-stamped by Debbie and her assistant Alice, two distorted, shape-shifting ladies who pilot the school bus and run the corrupt neighbourhood association that controls the park which is both the site of said contracts and the centre of the children’s world. If you notice certain words there, that’s by design, in keeping with Gerald Lynch’s. 

It is fun but problematic. Dr. Lorne Thorpe is (very!) hard to like. Harder still: in the story, Lorne’s daughter Shawn is missing. The more Lorne rants and mocks and indulges his self-pity, the more it seems Shawn goes missing from the story because her dad is so wrapped up in himself. The impatient part of me wanted to call in the editor. This is a father we ought to be falling in behind. The title of the book, and the premise set out in the opening scene, make us want and expect to go forward into the police or criminal side of the tale. But this is Dr. Lorne’s gig. 

I kept going with Lorne and was rewarded with some beautiful, if occasionally gut-wrenching, writing.

It is violent in stretches. Not in the action, per se, but the in the recounting of violence. Lynch’s powers of description are such that it shakes you. It takes pretty much the entire book to realize that “missing children” include “abused” children, “neglected” children and, most pointedly, “perpetual” children. Lynch risks losing us more than once in taking us to that point. The best solution is to enjoy the writing and the characters, and let the plot be what it is. 

The conclusion is like a dark fairy tale… which devolves back to a sentimentally pastel suburban tableau. 

Missing Children is a challenging read held together by excellent writing and damning, painfully funny social commentary. I would call Lorne Thorpe’s long and intensely detailed first bit of backstory a plotting glitch that might have been handled in a more artful way that kept the actual missing child in focus. But I am very pleased to have discovered Gerald Lynch’s crazy vision. Try it!

— John Brooke Author of the Aliette Nouvelle Mystery Series

More Reviews of this title

Missing Children

The case of the professor and the mystery novel
U of O professor releases his newest novel, Missing Children

While University of Ottawa English professor Gerald Lynch’s research focuses on Canadian and Irish fiction, his newly published novel is more reminiscent of his childhood love of the “Sherlock Holmes” novel.

In Missing Children, Lynch finally delves into the genre of mystery for himself.

The novel is Lynch’s fifth piece of fiction, having written two novels and two collections of short stories. Missing Children is set in Troutstream, the same fictitious Ottawa suburb as his previous novels. The novel follows a successful doctor as his life begins to spiral out of his control—starting with the disappearance of his young daughter.

The real intrigue of Missing Children, lies not in the whereabouts of the protagonist’s daughter, Shawn, who returns home unharmed, but in what caused her disappearance, and whether it’s related to the increasing number of children going missing from Troutstream.

The novel was inspired by a short story Lynch wrote for The Puritan, an online literary magazine. The idea was so compelling to him that he continued to add on to it, completing his novel a few years later. Lynch can’t pinpoint one inspiration to the story, but credits many events as what made him think about the subject of tragedy and its mysteries.

“My last novel was actually published in 2001,” Lynch said. “I didn’t intend it this way, but when I look back, it’s, in a way, a post-9/11 novel. It’s about how you cope with catastrophe, how you go on.”

This might just be the very question raised by Missing Children. Of the book’s main character, Lynch said, “he’s mystified, first of all by the fact she’s missing, secondly that such a catastrophe could come into his well-ordered life.”

When Shawn refuses to speak, the race for answers ensues, and the action escalates.

The novel’s intricate plot is true to mystery literature, but Missing Children is undeniably unique as well. “It definitely has a mystery aspect that would entertain readers, but it’s mostly about the narrator and what happens in his head,” said Lynch.

“The novels I’ve written have all had an aspect of mystery in them,” he said. “The truth is, just about any novel has that element. There has to be a mystery—that’s what keeps the reader reading.”

As an experienced professor who works on ongoing literary research, writing a third novel is a feat for Gerald Lynch, but he says it’s only part of the job. “Writing fiction has always been half my workload,” he said. “The other half is teaching, research, and working on committees. I’m very fortunate.”

Missing Children is available now in stores and online at all major retailers. Lynch will also be doing a reading at Books on Beechwood on Nov. 5 at 6 p.m.

— Maitland Shaheen The Fulcrum

Missing Children

As tethered to the rest of the world as it is, Ottawa often feels like a small, even private, city. That’s why it can be so jarring to open a local book and find a character stepping into a park or market where you’ve spent countless hours or even just recognize the name of. In Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, there’s a scene where one character almost dies in a bike crash on Sussex and Rideau. When I read that scene, instead of being alarmed, all I could think was ‘hey, I bike down that street all the time. Awesome!’

Gerald Lynch’s third novel set in the fictional Ottawa neighbourhood of Troutstream, Missing Children, is filled with great local references. Early on, the aging protagonist Dr. Lorne Thorpe takes his daughter to the Museum of Science and Technology, references to the Ottawa Citizen and CBC abound, and beneath it all lurks the murderous ‘Market Slasher.’ You can probably guess what area of the city he’s named after.

Dr. Thorpe’s adventure begins during a September heat wave with a morning visit to the Science and Tech museum. The visit is supposed to give him a chance to bond with his 10-year-old daughter Shawn.  But the plan backfires horrifically when the girl goes missing while Thorpe stares into the chicken incubator, lost in the miracle of life.

This tragedy shatters Thorpe’s sleepy life and the plot barrels forward from there. When sharp and ambitious detective Kevin Beldon determines that the case is a kidnapping – part of a sudden string of child disappearances – Thorpe is drawn into a mystery that can’t be solved by his reliable array of sarcastic comments and dad jokes.

In Missing Children, Lynch has taken a calculated risk by putting such an unlikeable character at the helm of his story. Dr. Thorpe is easy to hate. He’s mean, offensive and incapable of taking most things seriously. Fortunately, Lynch surrounds Thorpe with more likeable characters, including his saintly wife and a detective who seems more dedicated to Shawn’s case than Thorpe. Their frustration with the protagonist reflected mine, and made Dr. Thorpe feel like a realistic portrayal of a deeply flawed, but still good, man.

Keeping the main character interesting is one of Missing Children’s greatest strengths. Although the characters are all consumed by the disappearances, Thorpe’s march towards old-age is a persistent and engaging subplot. Before Shawn is literally taken from him, both of Thorpe’s children are metaphorically drifting away as they become their own people. He gets tired more easily, and his job weighs on him more heavily. The theme of aging is front and centre from Missing Children’s opening line:  “No matter a Saturday night, for a long time already we’d been going to bed earlier.”

Thorpe’s brief reflections on growing older are some of the book’s most beautiful and human moments. However, if you have more of taste for mystery than literature, the kidnapping and sudden reappearances of Troutstream’s children should keep you hooked.

Missing Children was my first outing to Troutstream, which by this third book Lynch has built into a fascinating community. The town is populated by interesting characters who had me intrigued every time their stories crossed with Dr. Thorpe’s. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people are the central figures in the other books, dealing with their own problems as they walk past Dr. Thorpe washing his beloved Cadillac. These stolen glimpses of other stories breathe life into Lynch’s fictional setting, and Troutstream is a convincingly idyllic town set between a prison and sewage treatment plant. I think I’ll have to visit again soon.

— Eric Murphy Ottawa Life Magazine

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