As a child, I used to haunt the seafront on the North East Coast where, twice every afternoon during the summer, the Punch and Judy men would entertain. Half the fun was the interactivity. We were encouraged to shout, “Look out behind you!” and endure the frustration of our best-intentioned advice ignored. At Christmas, we young and impressionable children got more practice in shouting out warnings during the Pantomime season. Snow White and the cross-dressed Aladdin would be bending over in front of the Gingerbread House debating whether to plant the bean when everyone would shout out, “Look out behind you,” as Widow Twankey approached unseen from stage left, his tickling stick at the ready. Well, I learned the lesson well. In the peace and quiet of my own head, I still remonstrate with the characters when reading. In Vanished in the Dunes by Allan Retzky (Oceanview, 2012), I’d just come to a rough understanding of the hero’s situation when he unexpectedly finds himself in possession of a dead body. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is inconvenient. So there’s me shouting out, “Don’t be an idiot! Call the Police, right now!” Except, in my heart, I know my words will be not be heard. Actors have scripts to work from and always ignore the audience. Where would the novel go if he did the rational thing? Yes, there would be problems in explaining how she came to be where she is, but isn’t the US justice system wonderful? Doesn’t the presumption of innocence work to protect people who have done nothing wrong?
OK so that’s why he gets the trash bag and sets about moving the body. He’s in his second home in the Hamptons with a great sea view so there are plenty of areas where a body may be left — fortunately this is out of season so there are no Punch and Judy men to observe this desperate act of disposal. Then it’s back to complete the clean-up, steady himself to collect his wife who’s due to join him from New York, and behave as if nothing has happened. Except his wife does not come. Their marriage has not been good and she choses that day to send him a Dear John SMS. He has the house to himself. A month goes by before the Police contact him. It’s routine, nothing to worry about. Almost six weeks later, he’s attempting a reconciliation with his wife. Then we watch as Henry, the dead woman’s current partner in New York, decides to go looking for her. He talks to our hero (if that’s the right way of describing him) and another local man who met her briefly. Henry thinks both have something to hide. We also look over the shoulder of Wisdom, the local detective who was allocated the missing person report. He thinks Henry was jealous and is the most likely suspect, assuming this is a murder, of course. The body still hasn’t turned up.
Five months after the death, a further complication arrives. The dead woman’s sister flies in from Austria. She’s quite well connected and smoothly engineers a meeting with Wisdom. Except the family long ago disowned the woman. Because of her promiscuity, they don’t care whether she’s alive or dead. Nevertheless, she informs Wisdom she will be moving into the area in an effort to find her missing sister. When she settles in, she decides to dress as her missing sister and confront the suspects. They look alike. She thinks it may trigger memories and reactions. Wisdom agrees to help. Meanwhile Henry’s life is collapsing. He decides the only hope for peace of mind is aggressively to investigate. He therefore begins to follow the two local men, immediately discovering one is gay. This rules him out and leaves only our hero (perhaps he will act like one). Once Henry has evidence of guilt, he plans to kill our hero (now there’s an incentive to act like a hero). Fortunately, our hero spots a tail and asks Wisdom whether there’s police surveillance. Now we approach the crisis.
All life is built on the back of the decisions we make. It’s basic cause and effect. So no matter how much we like to tell ourselves we will always do the right thing, there are more primitive emotions to get in the way. We fear the discovery of our weaknesses. We lack trust in the social systems designed to protect us. With our backs against the mental wall, we’re selfish and decide to protect ourselves as best we can. The question always lurking in the background is just how far we might go when in protection mode. The closer the threats come, the greater the danger, the more the flight or fight response kicks in. Adrenaline has always been our survival, get-out-of-jail card. With the muscles pumped up, we could climb a tree or face down the dinosaur (only joking). So it is with our hero who literally started off this sequence of events innocent but then stepped over the line by moving the body. As circumstances begin to conspire against him, can he continue the cover-up? Although this is not an original plot, the reasons for hiding the body are reasonably convincing and, once started, Allan Retzky manages a good pace and the narrative develops with considerable style. The characterisation of the key men is good, but I’m not entirely sure of the Austrian sister’s motivation nor what she really thinks she can achieve on her own. That said, this is a highly competent first novel and well worth picking up if you enjoy watching people in situations they can’t control.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.