When is a mystery not a mystery?

Is it when you can work out the killer in the first third of the book and (rarely) doubt that you’re wrong?

Or is it when you’re always several steps ahead of the main investigative character, rendering much of their hypothesising redundant?

Maybe it’s when you aren’t convinced by the final reveal?

The last two certainly applied in my reading of ‘Missing Pieces’; the first should have applied, if I were paying sufficient attention.

What’s it about?

Twenty years ago Lydia Quinlan was brutally murdered in her own home. The murderer was never found.

When Julia Quinlan suffers a bad fall and ends up in hospital, her nephew, Jack, returns to Penny Falls with his wife, Sarah. Jack has barely set foot in the town since his mother’s murder and has refused to discuss his past with Sarah.

Sarah is intrigued by the opportunity to learn more about her husband’s past, but when Julia dies and a murder investigation engulfs the Quinlan family she realises someone is prepared to kill to keep what happened to Lydia a secret.

Can Sarah solve the mystery before the killer silences her?

What’s it like?

Easy to read but ultimately unconvincing.

The start is promising: we witness the beginning of the attack on Lydia, then shift forward in time and are stunned to learn Sarah believes Lydia and her husband died together in a car accident. Why does she think this? What’s going on?

Gudenkauf aims to sustain this level of drama and uncertainty throughout the novel as Sarah is wrong footed at every turn by discovering deeply worrying truths her husband had omitted to mention. To add to the tension, Sarah begins receiving strange messages via her agony aunt alter-ego email address. Throughout it all, Jack refuses to acknowledge that his lies have caused a potentially deadly rift in their marriage. Then again, that may be because they seem like strangers to begin with.

Sarah and Jack are meant to have been married for twenty years and have two teenage girls together, but there is no sense of intimacy between them and it takes surprisingly little for Sarah to begin to suspect her husband of murder. Yes, he lied to her, but as a former journalist and current agony aunt I would have expected her to be more sympathetic to his reasons for lying and more considerate of his bereavement. (Let’s experiment: can you think of any reason why someone might not want to talk about the brutal death of their mother that ended their childhood? Hmm?)

Instead her attempts at support are limited to shouting, “Jack, are you ok?” through the bathroom door at him while he vomits audibly. She can hear him being sick so…probably not? Then she avoids him as much as possible while: threatening to go home by herself, getting jealous of his ex-girlfriend and speculating with a woman considered a gossip about whether or not her husband is a murderer. I bet he’s glad he took her with him.

Though equally, why did he take her with him? He must have realised his lies would come undone, as he hadn’t given his family any instructions regarding hiding the truth from Sarah, let alone found a way to keep the whole town quiet. If he wanted to keep his secrets, he needed to find an excuse to leave her at home. If she insisted on coming with her, he needed to be honest upfront. Except, I suppose, he couldn’t, because then it wouldn’t be plausible to speculate about him being The Murderer and the plot would take a hit. Instead, the credibility of the plot / characterisation takes a hit. Does he seriously think Sarah will sleepwalk through Iowa without asking a single potentially difficult question about his past? Has he forgotten that his wife used to be a serious journalist?

Although if he has, that’s not altogether surprising, as Sarah seems to have forgotten it too, despite getting support from one of her colleagues. I would expect a journalist to be more on the ball and quicker to piece together what’s going on. Instead, when all is revealed the murderer taunts her that, “It took you long enough to put the pieces together, Sarah.” A chapter or so later and Sarah herself reflects, “Some investigative reporter I am.” Indeed.

Final thoughts

This is very easy to read and I was curious to find out what happened to Lydia and to Julia. I like that there is closure: you learn why and who and how and the epilogue gives a glimpse into the future (in which everything seems rather easily resolved). The clues that exist support the ending, though I could query the killer (I can’t reveal why without also revealing who it is so will not add anything else here) and I think this would suit a reader who likes a sporting chance at solving the crime themselves.

I could see what was happening far more easily than Sarah (if you read the prologue with sufficient attention then it’s quite clear who must be responsible from the limited pool of suspects Gudenkauf introduces), which was a little frustrating at times as I wanted her to be quicker to make certain connections, but perhaps this is an unfair criticism which simply shows I have read too many crime fiction novels to be easily surprised!

Most frustratingly of all, I felt the story lacked credibility. Sarah gains an awful lot of information from one source that is astonishingly easy to manipulate – but even this doesn’t actually help her solve the crime. Instead, a killer who has managed to stay perfectly hidden until now chooses to send her deranged “clues” (which Sarah initially ignores) and then engages in a confrontation which brings about closure but which wasn’t actually required (for various reasons). I can only assume the killer had more faith in Sarah’s investigative skills than I did.

Could Sarah really have gained the help she did? Actually, maybe. It’s a small town; the first murder rocked them, the second murder has stunned them and everyone is desperate to see justice served. I think, ultimately, this was maybe just a little too ‘cosy’ for my crime tastes (yes, despite featuring quite a brutal murder!).

I really loved the premise of this, the idea of hidden secrets and double lives promised by the press release. Gudenkauf wrote this story because she was fascinated by the idea of people leading hidden lives that their families and friends had no idea about. Unfortunately, while I was sufficiently engaged with the storyline to read the whole book, I felt the execution was a little lacking. Arguably, the murderer was simply insane, rather than leading a true double life, and this story is more about family tensions than double lives.

I recently read ‘The Marriage Lie’ by Kimberley Belle, which does explores someone leading a double life in a way that is far more chilling and convincing. If that’s the premise you like, I highly recommend Belle’s book.

‘Missing Pieces’,
Heather Gudenkauf,
2017, Mira, paperback ARC
Many thanks to the author and the publishers for providing me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.