This is Mo Hayder's seventh novel, and along with two standalones it's the fifth in the Jack Caffery series, Caffery being a Detective Inspector within Bristol's Major Crime Investigation Unit. He specialises in solving crimes that involve homicide. The backbone to this story is the pursuit of someone known to have kidnapped two young girls in separate 'car-jackings', and Caffery is under intense pressure to find the missing girls - dead or alive. Meanwhile his associate Sergeant Phoebe 'Flea' Marley of the Underwater Search Unit gets deeply involved in the search, going about her work in her own unique and very dangerous way.
This is a big, big improvement on the third and fourth novels in the series, RITUAL and SKIN. There had been a frustrating seven-year gap between the second (THE TREATMENT) and third, by which time the series had been given a curious re-branding of sorts (it was labelled a trilogy, of which GONE is the third) built rather loosely around a vagrant called The Walking Man. The only thing that The Walking Man represents here, however, is for someone who Caffery can talk to - and even then, meetings and conversations are brief and infrequent and neither poignant nor deeply meaningful. More to the point, the intended enigmatic draw of The Walking Man continues to miss the target, as the story might well be the better for his complete omission. Nevertheless, of the three latest novels in the series, GONE is comfortably the best.
But it isn't as good as the first two, even if the standard of writing is probably Mo Hayder's best to date, which offers evidence of her growing maturity as a professional crime fiction writer. The reasons why it isn't as good are simple: the story is more mainstream and less boundary-pushing than before, and the examinations of the character of Jack Caffery continue (as in RITUAL and SKIN) to be infuriatingly light and understated when compared with the intense probing into his soul and psyche that was so rich and entertaining in the first two novels. Here, the emphasis has shifted slightly to the events of the police procedural work, in Caffery's and Flea's very different ways, but we don't really get under the skin of these two leading characters in quite the ways that I personally had hoped. That's the standard benefit of a book compared to a film; the reader can see, hear and above all feel what the leading characters are going through, especially with regard to their emotions. In GONE, some of these responsibilities are delegated to background characters, notably the mothers of the missing children.
Anyone who has read BIRDMAN or THE TREATMENT will probably acknowledge that the stories within them pushed the boundaries of acceptable crime fiction story-telling. They had a genuine 'edge' to them, even if the writing wasn't quite as polished as it is today in the new novel. It's interesting to note that Mo Hayder's seven-year-old daughter Lotte was born after she had written her controversial first two novels - so written from a single person's perspective, you could say - while her latest novel seems to be written more from a mother's point of view, and the raw edges are definitely toned down. While I enjoyed reading it, I kept wondering at least two things: that she has softened that once unique 'edge' as a result of discovering the joys and stresses of parenthood, and that this story has been subtly smoothed into a package that will appeal to the bulk of fiction-buying consumers. Women, in other words, and in particular mothers whose greatest fear would be (understandably) the kidnapping of a child. As a male reader and parent of a seven-year-old girl myself (and supporter of countless female crime-fiction authors) I have always enjoyed the works of female writers such as Mo Hayder who tell it like it is, like she wants to, regardless of the gender of the reader. Now, however, that cutting edge has been blunted more than a little, to be replaced by something that perhaps her publishers, her female readers and possibly even Mo herself want: a change to more mainstream police prodedural story-telling. Don't misunderstand me - GONE is very good and in many ways hard to fault in all three key elements of story, prose and characters, but she CAN do better and I know this because he has demonstrated this on three occasions before. What she has done with GONE is to take a fairly credible storyline - the type you might hear about on the news - and turn it into a decent thriller. She's done it efficiently and professionally and I would expect that she and her team are pleased with the outcome. But there's something missing, that killer edge, and I wonder if this was deliberate (in order to appeal to a wider audience) or whether she has actually lost her 'poison-pen' attitude she started out with, and reached a peak with in TOKYO / THE DEVIL OF NANKING. Some writers are at their most raw and passionate with their first novel; in Mo Hayder's case she managed to sustain that over the course of her first three. Then something happened from RITUAL forwards she went into the pop-music equivalent of crime fiction writing, leaving behind the specialness of the talents she displayed when she first burst on the scene a little over a decade ago.
Can I recommend GONE? Oh yes, without hesitation. But it's not as good as the writer is capable of, and I hope she returns to her darkest roots next time around. It must be extremely difficult to balance the heart and mind when writing a book such as this, trying to please everybody, but I think she is capable of it - to write darkly from the heart and to keep hold of the new fans she will doubtless acquire with this, her latest novel. I would like her to dump the pointless Walking Man, to return with a really daring and juicy story, and to get deep, deep into what was once the tortured soul of Jack Caffery. She can do it. From an Essex boy to an Essex girl, one who like yourself lived in Tokyo and could write a book about my experiences there, I appeal to you, Mo : Do it like you did before.