Bonnar Spring’s new thriller, Disappeared, is without doubt an exciting read, a heady combination of romance and menace. Romance, that is, in the “heroic and marvelous deeds” definition, not the “falling in love” one.
American sisters Julie and Fay, both adults and married, are together in Morocco for a girls’ getaway. Fay suggested it, in fact, insisted upon it. In Ouarzazate, she slips away on a mysterious errand. She leaves Julie a note explaining that she’s visiting a distant village, she cannot say why, and will be back in two days. But she doesn’t return. Julie vacillates between anger at Fay for having a hidden agenda for the trip and worrying herself sick. With no help from the US Consulate, and with the barest clues to go on, she sets out to find her sister.
In unraveling the reasons this book appealed to me so (aside from the confident, skillful, and evocative writing, which I don’t for a minute discount), I hit upon several.
First, the setting is somewhere a little mysterious, more exotic than, say, central London. It’s a place where there are unknown possibilities, where the outcome of situations is unpredictable (deftly exploited by the trailers for the new Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain movie, The Forgiven). I’ve visited Morocco twice myself and both times felt my senses overwhelmed by so much—so much strangeness, so much to look at, smell, and taste, so many new sounds. Even in a metaphorically far country, Ouarzazate is even farther, located on the opposite side of the Atlas Mountains from the more cosmopolitan cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. It’s back of beyond country, the gateway to the Sahara.
The setting teems with inherent dangers. The general ones that face a woman alone in Morocco’s southern and rural areas, where women are typically veiled and isolated. And the specific ones linked to Fay’s strange disappearance, as well as the bad advice Julie sometimes receives. Whom can she trust? The safeguards we take for granted—including social norms, charitable institutions, people we can ask for help—are simply not there. Unease operates at multiple levels.
Another source of the book’s appeal is the search for the sister itself. Looking for a missing sibling is a believable quest, one Julie is totally dedicated to. The story—her story—never loses its strong sense of mission.
Finally, there’s the complete unpredictability that’s part-and-parcel of any standalone thriller. For me, a good bit of a story’s tension is dissipated knowing protagonists will live to see another book. It takes the edge off the dangers they face. I know other readers are drawn to series—especially as they’ve become attached to or self-identified with a protagonist. Perhaps the attraction is partly because the tension is more manageable. In a one-off, anything can happen. And sometimes does.