Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person focuses on a private detective, introduced as Guy Roland, who investigates himself. The location is Paris; the time period, the mid-1960s. I say “introduced as Guy Roland,” because from page one of this novel, we comprehend that we are dealing with a detective narrator with little sense of his own identity. “I am nothing,” is how the book starts. “Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…”
The head of the Agency he works for, a man named Hutte, is retiring. The Agency is closing. But Hutte is keeping the lease on the apartment where the Agency operates, which means that all the “street-and-trade directories and year books of all kinds going back fifty years” will remain there. Hutte, who brought Roland into the Agency eight years ago, who taught him how to be a private investigator, has described these volumes as “the essential tools of the trade”, objects he’d never discard. Roland asks about them, and when Hutte asks Roland what he intends to do with himself, Roland says that he’s following something up. You think that he’s talking about a case that needs closing and that he wants access to the volumes for his work, but then he tells Hutte what he’s really talking about: “My past.” Hutte understands – “I always thought that one day you’d try to find your past again.” – and gives him a key for free use of the premises while’s he off to retire in Nice. Though Hutte asks him whether finding his past will be worth it, he does nothing to dissuade Roland from beginning his stated quest; he, too, it seems, suffers from a strange amnesia.