‘Nine days before her daughter disappeared, Morgan Vine paid her twenty-third visit to HMP Dungness.’

Now tell me that opening hasn’t got you hooked. Why is Morgan there? Why does her daughter disappear? How are the two connected? (Since the construction of that sentence tells you they are.)

Of course, if you’re reading the opening sentence of screenwriter Simon Booker’s debut novel ‘Without Trace’, then you’ve likely already read the blurb, so you probably know that Morgan is visiting her childhood sweetheart, Danny. Still. There’s plenty to uncover yet.

What’s it about?

Once upon a time, Morgan Vine dreamed of being an investigative journalist, but in that classic female failure, she got knocked up instead and now writes meaningless columns about celebrity fridges, when she’s not cleaning local houses. Of course, she might have pulled herself together sooner if it weren’t for her obsession with childhood hero Danny Kilcannon – or Killer-Cannon, as the press have dubbed him since he was accused of murdering his teenaged step-daughter with a claw-hammer. Morgan’s stalwart belief in his innocent has made her the front-running campaigner for his retrial and release, but within days of his release, her wayward teenage daughter, Lissa, disappears and doubts start creeping in.

Did Killer-Cannon Kilcannon murder his step-daughter and his wife? Is this just another teenage strop (Lissa has form) or did Morgan release a killer? Surrounded by people who seem keen to help, but who are all slightly off-beat – the sexually-minded prison officer, the police officer struggling to manage her own wayward daughter, the equally obsessive journalist from a local tabloid – who can Morgan trust? The final answer is chilling.

What’s it like?

Fast-paced. Convincing. Brilliantly drawn together. Short chapters encourage you to race from twist to turn, wondering what Morgan can possibly uncover next. For a while it isn’t clear how all the plot threads will connect, so I didn’t feel particularly invested in the developing story of Chelsea Farmiloe’s antics, or the possibly dead, possibly missing wife, but this is a masterpiece of plotting and everything becomes relevant at the end. I’m a sucker for stories that come together like this and really enjoyed the ending.

And yet…is the plot believable? Hmm. The characters are utterly convincing; from Morgan’s recognition of her own hypocrisy to Danny’s account of how prison changes you to Lissa’s teen-speak and simplistic attitudes, I found them incredibly real. But the complexities of the actual plot? Booker is a screenwriter and this is made for the screen (especially that ending): as a film, I probably wouldn’t even comment on it, but as a book it felt rather dramatic. Perhaps that’s the key distinction; on reflection ‘Without Trace’ is a very realistic whirlwind of drama.

Morgan is a fascinating character. Obsessive to the point of seeming almost unhinged initially, her credentials as an investigator move slowly into focus as the story develops and, as we learn about her background in carefully developed flashbacks, we can understand her compulsion to defend Danny when everyone – everyone else – is telling her he’s dangerous. Danny is also intriguing. Clearly, he’s not an innocent, but is he really capable of murdering his best friend’s daughter?

Miscarriages of justice

Booker appears to be fascinated by miscarriages of justice. Within the first couple of chapters of ‘Without Trace’ I realised he was echoing details from the murder and trial of Billie-Jo Jenkins, murdered school-girl, and a quick visit to his website reveals he penned an earlier psychological thriller called ‘The Stepfather’ (2005) in which a man’s daughter disappears and, when he tries to move on with his life, his stepdaughter disappers too. Sound familiar?

Apparently his interest in miscarriages of justice was sparked when his ex-wife married a man, Bruce Lisker, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. I think these are such fascinating cases because we find it impossible to know for absolute certain when the miscarriage of justice occurred: when an innocent man was jailed or when a guilty man was released. This is what makes it such a ripe subject for psychological thrillers: did they do it? Did they really?

Literary leanings

This is a lovely book for bibliophiles: Morgan runs a prison reading group (as Booker himself has done) and throughout the novel there are discussions about the novels the convicts are reading. (Of course, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is featured.) These discussions are short and usually focused on revealing more about the inmates feelings towards Morgan – and each other – than about the books themselves, but still. Books within books. Lovely stuff. And if you consider the choices carefully they might guide your developing insights into the characters.

Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, though ‘enjoyed’ feels like a slightly odd word to apply to a story with such dark roots. I love Morgan’s investigative style, which generally involves asking lots of questions and thinking about things, rather than a more ‘forensic’ or ‘gung-ho’ approach (she’s not bullying information out of anyone or tricking her way into armed buildings).

The uncertainty is compelling: throughout the book, the ground constantly shifts. Do we trust Danny? No, he’s clearly dodgy – or is he just damaged by his time in prison? Oh no, he’s definitely dodgy. But, so’s everyone else. So is he a killer? And even if he was, does he have know more about Lissa than he’s saying? I think there’s a key point where you reach a decision about him, but then something happened that completely changed my mind – and then something else happened and I was stunned into a new opinion again. Throughout we are brilliantly manipulated, like we might be in a high-stakes poker game.

I’m fascinated to see what happens in Morgan’s next outing (due in 2017). This investigation is so personal and held so much meaning for her that I’m wondering what she’ll be like in a (presumably!) less personally intense scenario. In the meantime, I’m off to watch ‘The Stepfather‘.

‘Without Trace’,
Simon Booker,
2016, twenty7, ARC
Many thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.