The Enduring Interest of Missing Persons: Just What Are We Missing?

I don’t agree with the theory that there are only seven plots in the world. Besides the fact I’ve written 23 novels already, I have dozens of plots swirling around my head that are yet to be realised and, I hope, each one of them unique. However, I do believe there are certain premises or situations that hold the enduring interest of readers, therefore writers can’t resist returning to them again and again.

In thrillers, missing people is one such trope. If you doubt that the interest in this condition is borderline obsessive, just google ‘thrillers’ and ‘missing’. Publishers are so aware of this fascination, they often make it easy for us readers and many of my favourite thrillers announce the theme in the title – Jane Casey’s The Missing, KL Slater’s Missing, Mary Kubica Local Woman Missing. LikeGillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, my novel about a missing woman, Two Dead Wives, doesn’t explicitly have the word ‘missing’ in the title but it does explore the theme. Why are we obsessed with this purgatorial, often ephemeral, always distressing condition? Why do novels about missing people continue to beguile and disturb audiences around the world?

Well, for me as both writer and reader, a missing person is intrinsically more interesting than a dead one because additional questions must be asked and answered. When reading a thriller centring around the case of a missing person, the reader wants to know, were they taken or did they leave on their own accord? If they left on their own accord, did the person run away from something or towards something? If they were taken, are they now dead or alive? If alive, where are they? Will they come back and who took them? This list that fires the imagination and sparks curiosity (surely some of the prime motivators for reading in any genre or form) is considerably shorter if the person in the book is murdered. Then the reader is left with just two questions. Who is the killer? Can the killer be caught? So perhaps one of the reasons thrillers about a person vanishing are so compelling is that the riddle of disappearance leaves an abyss of unanswered questions. There is more opportunity for us to be curious and intellectually stimulated. We are a clever bunch!

Thrillers often expose truths about human nature by looking at themes of extreme greed or cruelty, self-destructive jealousy or revenge, and debilitating fear. These all-too-human conditions are often motives for murder and are all fascinating as they are relatable and complicated. The root of a missing person case is statistically likely to explore one or more of the above human states: greed, cruelty, jealousy, revenge, fear. However, a mystery or thriller about a disappearance presents an opportunity to investigate another truth about human nature. Dare I suggest it to a bunch of thriller and crime readers who are by reputation cynical and hardened? Perhaps, a disappearance leaves space for the humanity that is available in optimism, possibility and hope. When I’m reading a thriller about a disappearance, the question I most want answering is ‘will they be found?’ There is a chance, which is not presented in a thriller about murder, that the person will be returned, recovered, reunited. Therefore thrillers about missing people have the potential to be more nuanced and layered than those about a murder. Without hope the human condition would be intolerable. A missing person hits that rare sweet spot, a complex combination of hope and despair, tragedy and the potential for a miracle.

Two Dead Wives is set on the south coast of England. A person disappearing presents the very opposite to the trope of a locked room mystery. Expanse is suggested, we are reminded that the world is a huge place. People can vanish but invariably they are missed. Kylie Gillingham is a disruptive bigamist but her sons and husbands still need to know where she is. They are left with the overwhelming question will they ever see her again?

About the Author

Adele Parks’s upcoming novel is Two Dead Wives (MIRA; Trade Paperback; On-sale December 26, 2023). Born in North Yorkshire, she is the author of twenty-one bestselling novels, over four million UK copies of her work have been sold, and her books have been translated into thirty-one different languages. Adele’s recent Sunday Times number one bestsellers Lies, Lies, Lies and Just My Luck were short-listed for the British Book Awards and have been optioned for development for TV. She is an ambassador of the National Literacy Trust and The Reading Agency, two charities that promote literacy in the UK. She is a judge for the Costa Book Awards. Adele has lived in Botswana, Italy and London and is now settled in Guildford, Surrey. In 2022 she was awarded an MBE for services to literature.