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Sunday, April 22, 2012

A terrific read and a terrible story

A couple of months ago I caught "A Good Read" on Radio Four. The guests were Rachel Johnson and Martin Kelner. She chose Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon and he chose London Belongs to Me (Penguin Modern Classics) by Norman Collins. They both enthused about each other's choices so I read them both. I really enjoyed both of them but the Beth Gutcheon story is one of those rare books that you go round recommending to people. My oldest daughter devoured it, as did my wife and the other day I marched a friend into the offices of the British publisher Persephone and insisted he bought a copy. A week later he was thanking me.

It was written in 1981 and it tells the story of a six year old boy who goes missing on his way to school. I wouldn't dream of telling anyone what happens at the end. Suffice to say it's one of those books which rescues the word "gripping" from the land of hyperbole.

The other day I was looking in the New York Times when my eye was drawn to a story about the New York police digging up a basement in a building in the SoHo district. This was in connection with the still unsolved case of Etan Patz, a six year old boy who went missing on the way to school in 1979. He still hasn't been found and the anniversary of his disappearance is now America's Missing Children Day. I wondered whether this might have been the inspiration for the story. It turns out it was. The Patzes and Gutcheons were neighbours at the time and the author knew the boy.

If you were a writer and you suddenly found yourself near the centre of a terrible true-life incident like that, you'd be pretty much compelled to write about it. You just would, wouldn't you?

When a film was made of the story in 1983 there was some publicity suggesting that it was unseemly to write a work of fiction based on a case which was still so open and painful. His parents, who are no doubt as well known in the US as the McCanns are over here, have never moved from the house. You just wouldn't, would you?