This starts out as a straightforward child abduction case, but quickly becomes something more complicated. Two sisters, aged twelve and eight, sneak out from Grandma’s house during an overnight stay to go to a concert. When they find they’re too late to catch a train or bus home, and have no money for a taxi, they accept a lift from an apparent good samaritan. The older daughter manages to escape but the younger vanishes. The family implodes during the police investigation, there’s a suspect but no evidence and no sign of the missing daughter. But then, strangely, the suspect confesses. The story then jumps forward several years...
The biggest problem for me is that all the characters are completely colourless, and never come to life. Even when they’re ranting and raving and falling apart, there’s no impact behind it, no emotional engagement. The facts of a child abduction, a guilt-ridden survivor, a cruel mother are not enough in themselves to arouse sympathy in the reader. After all, it's not an original idea, we've all read similar tales and seen them on TV. It needs something more from the author to make us feel for these characters. It doesn’t help that there is no real focus. Who is the book about? Is it Tina, the daughter who survives? Or is it Ruth, the police officer who stays with the case and the family over the years? And the story hops about from one character to another, never long enough or in enough depth to give any real insight into motivations.
Another problem is that the settings are not terribly convincing. There’s no sense of place (apart from the odd use of ‘pet’ to suggest the north-east, and name-dropping one or two real locations), and the prison seems to be a terribly nice, cosy affair, less brutal than the average girls’ school, where the inmates fall out over a bar of chocolate. The police don’t seem very convincing, either. Right the way through, they fail to ask obvious questions and follow up on possibilities that would occur to any reasonably sensible person.
However, once the police manage to get themselves on track, the book beomes something of a page turner, although there's never any real tension. It's not just the prison inmates who are unusually nice here, even the child abductors are mild-mannered gentle souls, shocked by the occasional swear word and clearly incapable of actual violence, so despite the police flap, the reader feels no real fear that the abductees will ever be killed. This is revealed at an early stage, along with the abductors' motives, so the only real excitement comes from watching the police gradually circle in on the perpetrators.
And then it ends, just like that, leaving readers to imagine for themselves just what would become of the various characters, which isn't very satisfactory. On the whole, this is a readable little book with a few logic flaws, which suffers from trying to cover too many aspects of the story. I get the point of the prison story, another instance of a vulnerable youngster falling under the influence of a strong character, just like the obedient young people of the church, but it felt like an unnecessary distraction. The story would have been stronger, I think, if it had focused solely on one side or another. This just about scrapes three stars.