Review by Frank Plowright
Sam is the local loner, the bad boy with attitude given one last chance if he’s mentored by straight A student Dana Nance. Dana runs the Hobtown High School Teen Detective Club, and figures they might be able to help Sam find his father, a man who just disappeared one day. He’s not the only one. In fact over the years several men have disappeared. Is there a connection?
At just shy of three hundred pages, there’s no lack of ambition to Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes’ homage to teen detective fiction, but it takes one hell of a long time to gel as intended. The back cover blurb describes The Case of the Missing Men as a combination of Nancy Drew and David Lynch, and that raises expectations not met. The strangeness is present, but transmits as artificial, elements added to prop up one-dimensional characters provided with deliberate eccentricities. Dana smokes a pipe, Sam is filled with rage, and some folk have foreign accents. Club member Pauline is the most interesting, prone to mystical pronouncements from somewhere beyond without truly understanding, yet intuitive and willing to go with the flow.
Forbes is an artist whose strengths don’t play to what’s needed. His sketched landscapes and panel backgrounds are attractively realised, depicting Hobtown as the intended area of natural beauty in deft strokes of ink. His people, however, are as stiff as lampposts, often posed in strange two-dimensional positions, their faces oddly constructed. At his best there are echoes of David Boswell, but The Case of the Missing Men relies heavily on conversations, which require plenty of people. A couple of times the storytelling drops into manga pacing, one where three pages lead up to the discovery a murder in the school cafeteria, which seems to be wasting space, but far later has a purpose.
A stiffness also characterises the dialogue, which is bizarrely formal. As this applies to almost every person it could be the case that Bertin intended it as another form of distancing weirdness, but instead it’s just awkward, not the way people speak. Weirdness is commonplace as detached, cultivated whimsy that draws attention, but lacking a foundation, which makes the David Lynch comparisons deceitful. However, The Case of the Missing Men ultimately engages because despite everything detracting from it, there’s a strong mystery plot and when the strange elements really kick in it moves with the pace of a cinematic thriller. The downside? It’s over two-thirds of the way through the book before that happens.
The Hobtown locale allows for nice scenery from Forbes, but the lack of personality about most of the detectives takes a lot away from what could have worked better with a single investigator, or a pair. And don’t expect everything to be tied up neatly by the end. Some things are, and some remain to be attended to in a sequel, The Cursed Hermit.