Stephen Orr, the author of One Boy Missing also wrote The Cruel City: Is Adelaide the Murder Capital of Australia? The latter book covers the more infamous cases that occurred in Adelaide, and one of those cases is the 1966 disappearance of the three Beaumont children. And it’s one of the reported sightings of the Beaumont children I thought of when I read One Boy Missing, for the novel begins with a man witnessing a strange occurrence; he sees a small boy, dressed in pyjamas, being thrown into the boot of a car. The man, a local butcher, is so stunned by what he sees, at first he can’t compute it, wrestling various scenarios around his head until he calls the police.
Detective Sergeant Bart Moy is the small coastal town of Guilderton’s only detective, so he’s the man who starts investigating the event. Orr depicts Guilderton as a dull, oppressive, poverty-stricken town–the sort of place you can live for forty years and still be considered an outsider. Right away Moy struggles with inconsistencies about the case–no one is reported missing; all boys in that age group are accounted for. The case begins to eat away at Moy for personal reasons. Moy has returned to Guilderton, a ruined, depressed man, after the death of his only child and his divorce. He’s there, ostensibly, to take care of his aged father George who lives in independent squalor, and since this is a small town where everyone knows each other, Moy’s neighbor persists in bringing over unappetizing casseroles in a relentless “Catholic mission” to make sure Moy eats.
Moy glimpsed his face in the wing mirror. He was getting fat, he knew; he’d lost his chin, gained a blush on his cheeks. He didn’t care anymore. He’d passed into his forties with little or no fuss: the stomach had arrived, the trainer-bra boobs along with a sort of giblet effect under his arms, but his legs were still strong, his buttocks tight, his mind sharp. Growing old didn’t bother him; the glib childhood promises of career and wealth had long since given way to gas bills and self-pollution. Now life was just movement–a slow progress through the world in the dawning realization that you were stuck with your own company for the rest of eternity.
Moy is seen as a “curiosity, a ‘boomerang,’ “–someone who managed to get out of Guilderton but who has now returned. The narrative creates an incredibly strong sense of place; this really is a miserable town with a depressive atmosphere, and at one point, Moy acknowledges the best course of action for outsiders who live in Guilderton, is to embrace one’s fate. To him, “the message was clear: just do your time. Survive, marry a local girl and buy something decent, or piss off.”
As Moy left the town behind the road turned to gravel. The houses along Creek Street started spreading out. Dead orchards and wrecking yards; chooks, and a few sheep. These were the backblocks: fences overgrown with prickly pear, goats that hadn’t been shorn in years, whole yards full of door-less fridges and lidless washers, children that ran mostly naked through forests of salvaged fence posts.
Moy had visited a family on Creek Street a couple of months back. There was no father and the mother would tie a rope around the three-year-old boy’s leg and tether him to the front porch when she went out. A neighbor, sick of the crying, had eventually called the police. Inside the house Moy had found an old box with a rug, a bottle for the boy to piss in and a scattering of shit left by the family of rodents that helped him eat the food left for him every second night.
Moy is initially mystified by what he calls this “non-case.” No child has been reported is missing, yet from the above quote, we understand that what some families consider ‘normal,’ is far from it, so is this case a domestic abuse scenario rather than a stranger abduction? Moy begins to wonder if the butcher really saw what he thought was an abduction, but then the boy is found, silent and obviously terrified. Where did he come from? Why has no one stepped forward to claim the child?
It would be wrong to say that One Boy Missing gives the sense of the Wild West because there’s no ‘wildness’ here–but the strong impression of an isolated town with a sole detective evokes a tamer, yet more dysfunctional version of the old cowboy West. Moy’s superior, Superintendent Graves, is just a disembodied voice on the phone. This is a town where the social and cultural gravity of the place overpowers any individual ambition. Moy lives in neglected and decaying government housing that you don’t want to fix as repairs only increase the rent. With almost no social services, and without the spectre of inspection and investigation, standards have slipped into oblivion. The Chinese restaurant is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with this town: even though people know that there’s a good chance they’ll get food poisoning if they eat there, they still, in a despairing acceptance, patronize the place. They accept the risk and plunge ahead as though food poisoning is normal and acceptable.
Guilderton had nothing resembling a health inspector. Apparently teams were sent from town to spend their days trawling the pubs and takeaways. Ineffectually, since he always got sick.
Just as Moy gets food poisoning from the local Chinese restaurant, it also strikes the town’s social worker, so with her down for the count, Moy takes the boy home. Because the boy is close in age to Moy’s dead son, the case is close to the detective’s heart, yet it’s a fine balance between questioning the boy for information and possibly damaging him further. The novel loses some of its pacing when Moy is forced to bide his time in the hopes that information leaks from the boy gradually, and the conclusion seemed a little rushed. But apart from that, this is a riveting crime novel for its incredible sense of how the environment impacts the town’s inhabitants.
He cruised the length of Gawler Street, a succession of creambrick government houses full of teachers, nurses and coppers who’d come from other places, marooned in the wheatbelt, biding their time, planting vegetable gardens to soak up weekends with absolutely nothing to do. The smart ones loaded their cars on Friday night and drove to town, returning in a semi-depressed state every Sunday night, deadening the rest of week with overwork and alcohol. But mostly it was just the hum of harvesters, conversations about reflux and milk teeth, the taste of microwave means and snowdrift CSI, no matter how big your antenna.