When John Lawrence vanishes from a park near his house, it looks to be a stand-alone case. Then his mother begins receiving anonymous letters from someone claiming to have abducted not only John, but Stella Rivers as well. Despite the obvious differences - a five-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl, the son of a loving single mother and a girl largely ignored by a mother and stepfather absorbed in each other - the cases are now united. This means double the pressure for Chief Inspector Wexford, who has so far failed to find Stella and doesn’t want to fail again.
His chances look grim when doubts are cast on the letter-writer’s claims, and when a suggestion emerges that Stella’s stepfather Ivan Swann, usually indolence personified, might have roused himself sufficiently to get rid of her. To make matters worse, Inspector Burden’s thoughts are miles away from the job - and firmly centred on Gemma Lawrence.
The thing I liked best about this book was the ending. The cases were resolved in a way (or in ways - I’m not about to give away whether they were connected or not!) unlike the usual cut and dried and off to jail. And entirely beyond my own deductive abilities; I think I’d do better simply to give up all hope of solving crime novels for myself. (But where would be the fun in that?) Much to my relief, I liked Wexford much better than I did in The Best Man to Die - he was far less cantankerous here. And I enjoyed the eccentrics among the characters - Stella’s silly besotted mother and bone-idle stepfather; the doctor who doodles body parts on whatever comes to hand; the petty crook turned informant who calls himself Mr Casaubon and thinks George Eliot was that bullion thief with whom he was once acquainted. What I didn’t like was Inspector Burden; I wished Wexford would borrow a move from NCIS and give him a smack on the head to knock him out of his idiocy. It was almost painful to read about an intelligent man being such a self-deluding fool. Sure, she’s fun for now, but she is So. Not. Your. Type. Wake up!
This was hard to assign a grade to - everything on the Stella Rivers side of the plot was good, everything on the John Lawrence side tended to annoy. Which side outweighed the other? In the end I decided that avoiding frustration trumped entertainment.