The Search Party is Lelic’s sixth thriller, and having loved reading his first three (Rupture, The Facility and The Child Who) I was keen to reconnect with this author. The structure of The Search Party has a lot in common with his stunning debut: Rupture combined police procedural with psychological thriller in a cleverly constructed ‘Whydunnit’ in which details were gradually revealed through first person statements made by those who worked with or were taught by the teacher that killed three pupils and another teacher before turning his gun on himself. The similarities are in that combo of police procedural and psychological drama told through first person statements again – we have no idea of who dun what at the outset of The Search Party though – just a missing girl and her five friends who think they can find her before the police.
The brief prologue is the transcription of a call to emergency services from near a building deep in the woods. Then we’re injected straight into the middle of the police investigation on ‘Day Six’.
We meet DI Robin Fleet, who has come back to his home town to lead the investigation into Sadie Saunders’ disappearance. Fleet is known as a copper who finds people, but he has history there, and some may say he’s come back to settle old scores. His Superintendent wants a result, naturally – and at day six after a teenaged girl goes missing, the chances are getting slimmer and slimmer. The search was concentrating on the river, where they’d found Sadie’s backpack, but the cost of the police divers and manpower for the search along the banks is enormous. Super Burton will shut it down soon. When five of Sadie’s friends decided to into the woods to look for her, and end up needing an ambulance in a clearing, things start to take a different, even more sinister route, for not all of them came out alive – and one of them must be a killer!
The five friends: Sadie’s boyfriend Mason (whom the Super thinks dunnit), the rebellious Cora, glued-to-her-phone whinger Abi, outsider Fash and Sadie’s twin brother Luke had all been interviewed multiple times before they went into the woods. Of the four who survived what happened in there, they must be telling a different story now.
Each chapter is told from a single point of view, alternating between DI Fleet and the friends. Fleet’s chapters are more conventional in tone, detailing the ongoing investigation, but also teasing out his own story – his current tense relationship with his wife Holly, and similarly with his mother ever since the events of all those years ago. Contrasting against that are the often confused outpourings of Sadie’s friends in the interview room, whose own loyalties to each other are strained to the limit.
What did they say? The others. What did Abi say? I bet she made out she had nothing to do with it, didn’t she? I bet she’s trying to blame it all on one of us.
It’s fucking typical. Abi’s such a faker, it’s no wonder nobody likes her.
Was my friend. Not any more.
There’s no love lost between Cora and Abi! She tells how Fash had come to see her on day four with the idea about a search party. They roped in Abi, then set off to get Luke – who’ll have to leave his younger brother Dylan home alone, as his parents are ’emotionally AWOL’ with Sadie’s disappearance. Mason is the last to join the group, he’s already fed up at the finger being pointed at him. After they come out of the woods, the pressure is even stronger, as someone lets on that Mason had taken a knife with him, and someone died out there.
I told you, I’m not going to explain myself to you. Not again. Not any more. Just ask yourself this: what would you have done? I knew I was innocent. I knew I hadn’t killed Sadie. But if it was true what everyone was saying, that basically means someone else had. And as far as I knew, that person had just turned up at my house, asking me to come for a little walk with then in the forest.
So go on. Tell me. What would you have done?
As you can see from the quotes above, we don’t hear any of the questions being asked in the interview room, only the friends’ replies. It’s an extremely effective way of telling the story. It worked so well in Rupture, although there we knew the outcome at the start; here Lelic refreshes this style again, giving a stream of consciousness feel to these chapters.
- Who is telling the truth?
- Who is embroidering the facts?
- Who is outright lying?
- Which of them, if any, are reliable?
- Who is the killer?
- Where is Sadie and is she still alive?
All these questions do eventually get answered, although at the beginning we can’t see the wood for the trees. Finding a path through this forest of entangled stories is a nightmare for Fleet, (puns intended!), who also has his own past to deal with which is impacting on the present. Despite the tragedy in his past, Fleet is less flawed than many a detective, a likeable lead character. By contrast, his Superintendent is absolutely cliched, but perhaps deliberately cast into that mould by the pressures of his job? – I’ll give Lelic the benefit of the doubt here, because Burton relieves the tension with his awfulness. This an assured first outing for DI Fleet, who will return (presumably next year) in The Hiding Place, which I for one, will look forward to reading.