Dutton, 400 pages, $27
Frankie Elkin is a great character. Because author Lisa Gardner knows her way around a book, she has created a memorable private investigator, not that that is the designation Frankie gives herself.
Frankie is haunted by events that are slowly revealed, but don't necessarily have anything to do with the book's central mystery. Right away Gardner tells you Frankie is an alcoholic. If you have read Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series, alcoholism is a big part of who Scudder is. We read one of the Scudder books for MBTB’s Other Book Group, and many people felt as though they had attended an AA meeting afterwards. There is definitely an authenticity about alcoholism in both the Scudder series and “Before She Disappeared” that cannot be denied. While it is not intrinsic to the plot of Gardner’s book, it defines top, bottom, and sideways who Frankie is.
As if on a mission — and who can argue with her — Frankie seeks to discover missing people. Up until she recently moved to Boston to look for teenage Angelique Lovelie Badeau, she had found fourteen missing people. None of them found alive. Frankie is looking to break that demoralizing record by finding Angelique alive if possible.
Frankie, a slight, forty- or fifty-something white woman, moves into Angelique’s neighborhood. It is very Black and in many places evidence of the big part poverty and drugs play in the neighborhood culture. So Frankie stands out painfully. It is a foregone conclusion that Frankie will find it difficult to get Angelique’s family and community to talk with her. But Frankie has learned a trick or two in the ten years she has been wandering the country looking to save souls. (And maybe her soul while she’s at it.)
Despite the suspicion that greets her and long odds, Frankie digs out a toehold both in the case and within the community. Although she occasionally/frequently takes shortcuts to meet people and gain information, she invariably lets the police know what she is up to. Not that they approve. Especially Detective Lotham whose case it is. Not that he has had many breakthroughs in the year since Angelique has been missing. Not that he can afford to turn down Frankie’s help. Even if she is a civilian.
Frankie establishes an uneasy truce with the neighborhood. Despite the fact that she is an alcoholic, she is by trade a bartender. So she gets a job in Stoney’s bar, with a rentable room above, complete with an ill-tempered, sharp-clawed cat. Making acquaintances one wary person at a time, she manages to learn who she needs to interview.
Frankie has heart. She’s forthright, compassionate but clear-eyed, and street smart based on years of experience. Slowly, she chips away at the mystery of what happened when Angelique walked out of her high school one day a year ago and disappeared.
Do I think, realistically speaking, a strange, small white woman could engage with neighbors — friendly and not — in a Black neighborhood in Boston and break open a long-standing mystery? No. But it doesn’t matter what might be realistic, because Lisa Gardner has a page-turning, relatable, emotional story to tell, and I enjoyed the journey.