The ingredients of many an excellent crime novel have been conjured solely from a writer’s vivid imagination, but Rene Denfeld — while clearly not lacking keen imaginative facilities — has drawn on elements of her own life for the highly persuasive The Child Finder. The theme in the author’s second novel is the tricky one of child abuse — a subject that was problematic for the crime genre until fairly recently but is now a staple of the genre. The American writer, however, uses it in an innovative fashion and – perhaps more importantly — in a responsible way. In fact, the author has been frank about elements from her own past, telling us that her stepfather was a sexual abuser. Another concern of hers is the well-being of vulnerable children (this has led to her adopting three children herself from foster care). She is also personally familiar with other perpetrators of sexual crimes, having worked as a death penalty investigator. None of this, of course, would matter if she lacked the necessary narrative skills — and they are present in abundance. The eponymous ‘child finder’ is the vulnerable Naomi Cottle, whose own family setup is a fragile one — Jerome, her foster brother, is incapacitated by a war injury but has to take care of the woman who raised them both. Naomi’s speciality is aiding distressed families when the children have gone missing and she has dedicated her life to finding them; sometimes, they are the lifeless victims of kidnappers but on occasion she is able to save them. Naomi finds herself in the frigid setting of Oregon’s mountain region, the Skookum National Forest, on the track of five-year-old Madison Culver who has vanished on a family expedition. All previous attempts to find her have failed, and as Naomi gets closer to the mystery of the girl’s abduction, her own, damaged past returns to haunt her. She was the victim of a sinister captor, known only as Mr B, and she has been left psychologically scarred by the encounter with a monstrous figure when she was locked in a cell. Denfeld is particularly adroit at the slowly tightening tension as her heroine comes ever closer to her objective and a violent climactic encounter.
Are there elements here that go beyond the parameters of the conventional detective novel? At times, there are echoes of the Danish writer Peter Høeg, who granted his deductive heroines nigh-supernatural abilities in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and The Susan Effect (an uncanny response to weather in the first, and the ability to compel truth in others in the second); readers will wonder if Naomi possesses preternatural skills in finding kidnapped children beyond the reach of most investigators, but Denfeld — perhaps wisely — keeps such fey notions firmly on the periphery. Her real grip is in the characterisation of her troubled heroine, with whose concerns the reader becomes inextricably involved. Admittedly, a certain attention is required to keep up with the wide variety of voices that Denfeld employs here, but it’s an effort well worth making. And despite the unflinching treatment of her grim subject, the writer’s use of language is often poetic – sometimes counterintuitively so. There is little doubt that the success that the book is already enjoying will send readers back to discover Denfeld’s first novel, The Enchanted, which similarly has its protagonist take a redemptive journey into the darker recesses of the human soul.
The Child Finder
By Rene Denfeld
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99, 273 pages