Reviewed by Lucy Forbes
Among the Departed
by Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press
May 2011, HC, 282 pp, $US 24.95
Among the Departed is the fifth murder mystery in the series featuring Constable Molly “Moonlight” Smith and Sergeant Winters. The series is set in the mountains above Trafalgar, British Columbia. The mystery starts out on a camping trip, where an obdurate young boy has wandered off from his family during the evening, out into the mountain forest. Police Constables Molly Smith (familiar with the territory) and Adam Tocek (Molly’s handsome and affable boyfriend), and his astute police dog, Norman, are called in to search; they find the boy in the early hours the following morning, crouching by a tree down a precarious slope. Sensing something more, Norman scratches around in the damp earth and directly uncovers what appear to be human bones; Tocek—sensitive to the presence of the boy—alerts Smith’s attention to the remains by referring to the dog having found someone “among the departed”. He asks Smith to “shine that light over here”, and so begins the story of a cold case illuminated.
After forensics determine the bones have been resting over a decade, the police begin to investigate the disappearance of a local man, Brian Nowak—husband, and father of two teenagers—who had purportedly gone for a morning stroll around 1996, yet had never returned. Extensive investigation at the time yielded nothing. As it happens, Constable Molly Smith was one of the last people to have seen Mr Nowak, as she had been breakfasting with Nowak’s daughter, Nicky (now living in Vancouver), on the morning of the disappearance. Now able to view her memory of the morning with a more mature eye, Molly plays a key role in the investigation.
The Nowak family is immediately alerted to the discovery of the bones, yet their reticence in assisting the police with the renewed investigation, while understandable in many ways (the perceived gossip and innuendo is agonizing), is unsettling in other ways—especially to the police. Without Mr Nowak, the family was left virtually destitute. The mother had been too proud to accept handouts—eventually the community ceased offering, and the incident had entered into village folklore. A valid focus in the novel, therefore, is the fallout out from a disappearance. How do people carry on with their lives when someone has not only departed, but vanished? How do they cope privately with the not-knowing, and endure the public scrutiny? What becomes of them? The novel gives the reader an insight into those living out their lives among the departed. This aspect of the novel is particularly compelling, thought provoking, and heart-rending.
The son, Kyle Nowak, still resides with his mother in the basement of the now closed-up family home. An artist and sometimes I.T consultant who “almost never leaves the house, except at night”, he is somewhat of a dark, morbid, reclusive character. Very unlikable from the outset, his character establishes the sense of secrets festering. Kyle has just begun seeking representation for his beautiful yet morose art work, and initially appears nonchalant. Since it is such a small community, the art dealer is expectedly involved in the investigation, as she is the wife of Sergeant John Winters, who is head of the investigation.
Nicky Nowak has moved to the city; as an occupation she initiates and falsifies love, then extorts money from her one -time lovers. While essentially provocative and heartless, her character is particularly saddening. Unable to cope with the notion that her father did not love her, and probably abandoned her, the exquisitely beautiful and sensual Nicky cheats others of love, or literally makes them pay for it. Making a living out of exposing other men’s weaknesses and betrayals has gone someway to empowering her—helping her cope with her confusion and abandonment. Her debilitating fear of rejection has manifested itself into a scorn for love and a created an almost bullet-proof source of income.
At the opposite end of the spectrum then, Mrs Nowak has become virtually uncommunicative and drab; the passiveness her character displays is disturbing at best. Emotionally crippled by her perceived shame of the experience, she lives out her shabby, confined life in a daze, allowing her obnoxious son to answer for her.
Although the investigation—past and present—continues to yield little in the way of evidence of foul play, bit by bit, Molly remembers details that become critical to the case. The police undertake and solve the investigation with consideration and sensitivity; refreshingly, this murder mystery focuses on intuition, observation, and compassion, rather than the usual wit and cynicism at the victim’s and perpetrator’s expense, which is so often demonstrated in the genre. Eventually though, entrenched antipathy and prejudice is revealed as the cause for the disappearance, and the truth of the case reveals itself. In a heart-rending moment, Kyle asks Nicky: “Don’t you ever wonder…what things would be like if Dad hadn’t died?” This is the heartbreaking crux of the story. The novel scrutinizes the nature of perception, misconception, prejudice, rejection, and love; it reminds us that acceptance, in all areas of life and love, is paramount.
About the author: Lucy Forbes works as a writer and editor, as well as a primary school teacher, in Queensland. She holds a BA in English Literature and Italian language & literature, a GD in teaching, and a GCA in writing, editing, and publishing.