Classics,  Crime fiction

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon (Persephone Books)

Despite my love for feminist literature and women writers, I had never bought a Persephone Book. In case you do not know about them, Persephone Books ‘reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.’ You can check their catalogue here, or do like I did and follow them on Twitter. Back in September I wondered if they had some review copies available of crime fiction writers, and they kindly sent me Still Missing (1981) by Beth Gutcheon.

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

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‘You could hardly get to age thirty-four without learning something about loss. By thirty four you’re bound to have lost your Swiss Army knife, your best friend from fourth grade, your chance to be the centre forward on the starting team, your hope of the Latin prize, quite a few of your illusions, and certainly, somewhere along the line, some significant love.’

Still Missing tells the story of Susan Selky, successful professor of English literature and feminist, whose son, Alex, goes missing on his way to school one May morning in Boston. He only had to walk a few blocks, and there were other mothers who would keep an eye on him, but on a fatal morning, Alex disappeared into thin air. When Susan arrives home from work in the early evening and Alex is not home, she does not worry. Bad things always happen to other people, don’t they? So, she performs some daily tasks until an hour has passed and her son has not gotten home. Where is Alex? From this moment on the novel explores the anxiety, grief and confusion that comes from losing someone you love, especially when there is no closure. And especially when the recently separated mother was in charge of the child, when her husband was at his lover’s flat. And when that mother has a successful career, never loses hope and is determined to be believed, not to be drugged, and to take control of the situation.

I started this novel last December, but it was not the right time to read it. So, I left it on my desk and decided to give it a try after I got over a very bad reading slump. And it worked. It took me 4 evenings to read the book, even though I was busy and there were other things that needed my time and my attention. Still, I wanted to spend more time with Susan Selky, because – as it happens in real life – anxiety and grief lead to a momentarily joyous obsession. It is not that usual in crime fiction to tell the story from the family’s perspective, although Gutcheon also included glimpses into Detective Menetti’s life, both as a detective and as a father and husband.

But, above all, Still Missing is a character study of 1980’s Boston. At the time, women were successfully entering powerful positions, and they were dealing with the consequences of doing so in a patriarchal society. Susan is a much better professor than her husband, and when her book got better reviews than his, she tried to minimize the praise, to minimize the impact on his feelings. The Selkys are also separated, and they have an amicable relationship in lieu of Alex, a family situation that was being normalized at the time. Meanwhile, they have a friend, Jocelyn, who is a Southern single mother and takes pride on being a liberated woman, sexually speaking, and a French homosexual cleaner who loves fashion, beauty tips, and endless sexual encounters with unknown men. As you can see, it is quite a mix of stereotypes, that somehow represent social groups that would be stigmatized and marginalized in the 1980’s. I found the police’s comments on homosexuality quite revealing, yet offensive. AIDS panic had not yet reached the streets, but homophobia was already spreading quickly.

Beth Gutcheon’s novel has been neglected, even though it reads quickly and is an anthropological, social and emotional study on 1980’s Boston. I would highly recommend Still Missing to any crime fiction fans who are looking for a different novel and do not mind it is quite dated. Because this is one of those novels where there are no DNA, no mobile phones, and no computers. Old school crime fiction at its best.



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