Book Review: Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton
Detective Elise King is convalescing from cancer treatments in the seaside town of Ebbing—a hamlet filled to the brim with gossiping, secret-keeping locals and ambitious newcomers. Elise spends her days gazing out of her front window, watching the comings-and-goings of the people along the street, so she has a front-row view of the music festival being thrown by newbie Pete Diamond and all the drama associated with it.
But what seems like innocuous internal bickering and sour grapes quickly takes a dark turn. In the morning after the festival, two teenagers have overdosed and Charlie Perry, an older local man, has gone missing. Elise is thrust back into the investigation process eight weeks before her return-to-duty date. And now she’s investigating her neighbors.
Local Gone Missing is the newest novel by Fiona Barton, bestselling author of The Widow. Told across multiple viewpoints and shifting between “before” and “after,” Local Gone Missing offers a comprehensive view of a community on the edge.
Across the book, the reader feels the shift from an almost “cozy” vibe—Elise’s observing the world through her front window and her gossiping with her neighbor, Ronnie, has the feeling of a Miss Marple mystery—to the nitty-gritty of a police procedural. This transition through the narrative echoes the transition of the community itself.
Before the music festival, for example, the community irritation was that a newcomer could even host a music festival at all. All of the local permits for something similar had been denied.
And the accusations had got more extreme as a petition to have the festival canceled went unheeded by the authorities. “He’s putting this on just to launder money,” a young mum with a child on each hand had said in the supermarket. “Everyone knows he’s using Ebbing to hid dodgy activities.”
Elise had looked at the other in the queue, nodding grimly along as if they had an inside edge on organized crime. And she’d felt slightly queasy. People festered about things they saw everyday: garden boundaries, blocked views, bad parking. Festival posters. It could fill their every waking moment until it became a full-blown feud. She’d once nicked an ex-mayor who’d stabbed his eighty-year-old neighbor over an unpainted fence panel.
She’d wanted to say that she’d checked their nemesis out very early on, having nothing better to do, and Mr. Diamond was as clean as a whistle. But no one would have wanted to hear that.
I hope things don’t get out of hand, she’d thought.
Afterward, however, the community must face darker undercurrents in their world. This mirrors Elise’s transition from convalescent to active detective. While Elise is no stranger to the rough offerings of the world, she’s been removed from it for a while. Then the world rears its ugly head again when the music festival goes south, taking two teenagers with drugs and taking Charlie Perry who-knows-where.
The titular “local gone missing”—Charlie Perry—is one of the more interesting characters from the start. (And not only because he’s a missing older gentleman in a fiction genre primarily dominated by missing young women.) He’s in a relationship with a woman who doesn’t understand him or finances. He’s struggling to support his daughter, who suffered brain damage in an accident and requires special care—care his wife doesn’t want to pay for. He’s active in this tight-knit community, gathering donations for local charities, for example.
“This is so kind of you.” He lowered his bag to the pavement, the contents clanking. “Oof, that’s heavy. I’m doing really well today.”
“Which charity is it?” she asked and stopped herself from asking for his ID.
“It’s local—we support young people with brain injuries. It’s something very close to my heart. My daughter, you see.” His voice caught and he wiped his face with a hankie. “Sorry,’ he said. “It can still catch me out sometimes. Even after all this time.”
It had caught Elise on the raw too and she teared up, reflexively tensing her chin to stop the wobble. She was crying way too often these days. The cancer nurse had said it was a good thing to let her emotions out but every sob felt like it weakened her, flaying off another layer of protection. How would she ever be right again?
Then Elise sees Charlie yelling at someone during the music festival, moments before the two teens OD.
The next morning, he’s gone.
Figuring out the riddle of Charlie, his past, and the town he calls home becomes Elise’s mission. Her unique perspective as an insider, as someone who has been observing from a distance, and as a logical investigator make her the ideal detective for this case. Even if it strikes very, very close to home.
Local Gone Missing is a great summer read, scratching the itch for a seaside location, musical get-togethers, crazy communities, and crime. While the pace is surprisingly fast and you can tear through pages pretty quick, you’re going to want to slow down. Nuance and details matter here, both in the storytelling itself and in Barton’s slippery way of presenting information. Puzzles within puzzles here.