Book Review: The Day He Left by Frederick Weisel
By Brian GreeneFebruary 7, 2022
Frederick Weisel’s new book The Day He Left is a suspenseful crime novel that shows how lots of lives can be impacted by one fateful incident, while also exposing the dangers of keeping secrets. It’s the second volume in Weisel’s Violent Crime Investigations Team Mystery series.
Paul Behrens is a 47-year old middle school English teacher living in Sonoma County, California. He’s married and is the father of two teenage kids. An instructor who throws himself into his work, he’s known for challenging and engaging students, and he recently won a Teacher of the Year award in his district. He has a brother and sister he keeps in contact with on a daily basis.
Sounds like a pretty well-adjusted guy with a purposeful, happy-enough life, right? So why, on a Wednesday morning in early May, does he leave the house but not go to the school? And why didn’t he tell his wife, or the principal, that he wasn’t showing up for work that day? And why did he leave his phone, laptop, and lesson plans in the house? And, when his 16-year old son Jesse observed him standing in their bathroom earlier that morning, why was Paul wearing clothing that was unusual for him, and seemingly crying?
Behrens’s wife Annie gets concerned enough to call in a missing persons report to the police. A team of four cops, led by a Lieutenant Mahler, is assembled and they make it a goal to find the missing teacher within 24 hours. When they start poking around Behrens’s phone and laptop, and talking to his family and the school principal, a curious and troubling picture begins to form. Behrens recently withdrew a large sum of money, and he has on his laptop an unsent resignation letter that references some unnamed scandal involving him. There’s a mysterious appointment on his calendar for that day. The principal mentions some recent trouble around Behrens at the school, but she defends him and refuses to discuss the specifics. Behrens said cryptic things to both his son and his brother over recent days, suggesting he’d gotten involved in some heavy shit. Oh, and a man has been physically stalking him lately, and another (or the same?) man broke into his classroom before school opened the same morning he went missing.
Other things we learn as the story develops is that Paul’s and Annie’s marriage has been far from happy, and that Annie, a 45-year old nurse, is a severe wine-oholic. Meanwhile, the sullen (to his parents and the cops) Jesse is known to be a street drug dealer. And Claire, the Behrens’s 13-year old daughter, is being extorted by some mean girls at her school who say they are in possession of embarrassing content about Claire’s parents and are going to publish it online if Claire won’t pay them a couple hundred bucks.
All of that is revealed in the early chapters of the book. I’ll avoid spoilers by not discussing the plot anymore.
The word-for-word writing in the novel is flawless. The suspense is handled well. The reader has lots of questions about Paul Behrens and his family and associates, and we don’t get fast answers. But Weisel throws us a steady diet of bones, so that we get new and relevant info at least somewhat regularly, even while the solution to the full puzzle remains out of our reach. The characters are believable and interesting, and the main plot is compelling and moving. There’s nothing remarkably original about the novel, yet it impressively avoids the cliched characters and trite language that plague so many contemporary works of suspense fiction.
But pacing and focus are problems. The book’s one flaw is too much extraneous content. It’s good that we get to know some things about the personal lives and careers of the law enforcement officers working on the Behrens disappearance case. That helps us feel like we can see and know all the characters in the story. And while I haven’t read the first of Weisel’s Violent Crime Investigations Team Mystery titles (2021’s The Silenced Women) I get from the name of the series that he means for these stories to be as much about the cops out to solve the crimes as they are about the characters involved in the crimes.
But, in this book, Weisel goes too far in this way, such as the many instances when he gives us detailed accounts of other cases the cops have worked or are currently working. That’s excessive and takes things far away from the main story. The novel would have been well served if that filler material had been edited out, or at least reduced to a minimum. We’re presented with this fascinating story about the missing teacher, and the more we learn about him and his recent activities, the more intriguing things get. But then, frustratingly, Weisel keeps taking us away from the subject of Paul Behrens to go on tangents that have nothing to do with him. The book is at its best when successive segments all focus squarely on the Behrens story; unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often enough.
Trim down the extraneous content and this could be a brisk 225-page read that’s a solid A- contemporary crime novel. But, since the filler was left in to stall the momentum, it’s a 364-page work that’s riveting at times but bogged down by irrelevant diversions, lowering it to a B-.