Gone by Leona Deakin
In her debut thriller, Gone, Leona Deakin takes her reader into a world where game-players create a nightmarish puzzle leading those trying to find them into a maze from which they might not escape.
Four completely unrelated strangers are missing. Lana Reid, single mother, signed off from the army with PTSD; father-to-be, Stuart Butler; Grayson Taylor, a young student and Faye Graham, a middle-aged accountant and mother of 2.
All disappeared on their birthdays. All disappeared from different parts of the county.
Left at the last-known location of each is a birthday card that reads:
HAPPY 1ST BIRTHDAY.
YOUR GIFT IS THE GAME.
DARE TO PLAY?
The police aren’t worried. It’s just a game after all, and the players all appear to be willing participants. But the families are frantic.
As more disappearances are reported and new birthday cards uncovered, psychologist and private detective Dr Augusta Bloom races to unravel the mystery and find the missing people. To do so she must find out what links them. And that means examining their lives and delving into their minds.
Everyone has secrets, everyone has a past they do not wish to reveal. The 4 missing people are, on the surface, ordinary folk leading unremarkable, if unfulfilled lives. But of course, what lies underneath is what makes us all interesting. And in this case, it provides the key to solving the mystery. It is a dangerous path for Dr Bloom, taking her back in time and all over the country in her quest and leading her to discoveries she may wish she had not made.
The cast of central players in this bad trip of a game may at first seem drawn from familiar tropes: the calm, professional central character, a psychologist-cum-private detective drawn in by a personal connection to one of the missing; her more likeable counterfoil and partner, former Secret Services agent Marcus Jameson and the disturbed mind that is the young Seraphine Walker, who opens the novel in spectacularly brutal fashion and whose past link to Dr Bloom may have a bearing on how the good doctor approaches this case.
So far, so familiar.
Where Deakin succeeds is not so much by turning our expectations on their heads but by shifting the perspective on the objects of the disappearing trick. The missing 4 are willing participants in a sinister game rather than victims. They are not at all what they seem. The hidden is what matters here. And making them the subjects of their own destinies rather than giving them agency rather than pushing them around like hapless pawns in someone else’s game creates a tension that would otherwise be absent.
This is a tale in which the mind of the psychopath takes centre stage, its influence on others a central theme and its power to confound and manipulate never far from the mind of both Dr Bloom and the reader.
The book is not without flaws: there is psychological jargon but it doesn’t weigh the book down, although there are necessary passages of exposition, a little heavy at times. Some of the peripheral characters are sketchy. We are given only brief insights into the main players’ psyches, with chapters dotted through the book written from the perspective of different members of the cast.
But the flaws such as they are don’t impede on the pace, which increases thrillingly along with the tension as the novel progresses. The story contains more twists and turns than a fairground ride and improbable though the denouement is it provides for a satisfying conclusion to a successful first crime novel.
This is only the first outing for Dr Augusta Bloom. Doubtless she will return. We look forward to the next encounter.