Looking for good mystery novels/films centered around missing persons.
March 11, 2007 7:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing research (for a writing project) into Film Noirs and Mystery Pulps, and I'm looking for good selections of a certain plot type: the "missing person" scenario.

Any recommendations for books or movies that are good examples of this "follow-the-clues" style story would be greatly appreciated. I'm fairly familiar with the genre, but as is usually the case when in need, I've forgotten most of the films and books I've come across that fit the bill for this project. As far as movies go, some examples I can give off the top of my head are "The Vanishing," "Chinatown," or "The Third Man." Unfortunately I can't think of any good Chandler, Hammett or Spillane books at the moment that fit this plot, but I'm sure I've come across a few.

I'm really interested in finding stories in which a small "personal" investigation gradually unravels to reveal a situation of a much larger scope. "Kiss Me Deadly" has this type of stake raising, only the investigation centers around a missing object, not a person.

Examples of this plot type that have struck you as unique takes on the subject would be excellent, as would more typical (though "quintessential" would be preferred) examples. Thanks very much!
posted by SmileyChewtrain to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of Hitchcock- these two come to mind

The Lady Vanishes.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (kidnap plot, but fits the "larger scope" criteria). Remember he made two versions.
posted by conch soup at 8:05 PM on March 11, 2007

Nicolas Freeling's Those in Peril doesn't exactly have missing people, but the gradual broadening of the investigation from a small matter might be worthy.

Janwillem van de Wetering's Death of a Hawker fits the bill for a 'follow-the-clues' investigation. While you're reading you have in the back of your mind the critical question of what the murder weapon looks like.
posted by jet_silver at 8:07 PM on March 11, 2007

Chandler's "The Little Sister" might fit the bill.
posted by robcorr at 8:12 PM on March 11, 2007

The Maltese Falcon starts out with him looking for her sister and mushrooms out to the larger McGuffin hunt from there.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:15 PM on March 11, 2007

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?
posted by faunafrailty at 8:33 PM on March 11, 2007

A few samples:
- Perhaps the first murder mystery, Poe's Mystery of Marie Roget (1842), was based on an actual missing person in New York. Poe transposed the setting to Paris, where the mystery was solved by his proto-sleuth Auguste Dupin.
- Murder by Death (1976), Neil Simon's Agatha Christie spoof, wherein the loony mastermind played by Truman Capote ("'What is THE meaning of this?', Mr. Wang!") arranges his own disappearance.
- Memento (2000), adapted and directed by Christopher Nolan, features the lead's memory loss as a missing-person metaphor.
posted by rob511 at 8:54 PM on March 11, 2007

The Big Lebowski is a humorous take on this sort of story. It begins with the search for The Dude's stolen rug and expands into the search for the missing Bunny Lebowski, unraveling into the discovery of the Nihilists, Lebowski's daughter Maude, etc. The Coen brothers love Raymond Chandler; his influence is all over their movies.
posted by junkbox at 9:02 PM on March 11, 2007

I second faunafrailty's suggestion of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Great movie, too.
posted by numinous at 9:29 PM on March 11, 2007

I've never thought of Chinatown as a Missing Person story... who's missing? (unless you mean "the girlfriend", but I don't think that really fits the template)

For books/films:

Chandler's The Long Goodbye;
Sara Gran's new paperback, Dope (excerpt); Brick (sorta);
Crumley's The Wrong Case;
Vachss' Shella, if I remember correctly;
Nicola Griffth's Stay (excerpt)
posted by dobbs at 9:36 PM on March 11, 2007

Oh, 8mm. Though the film is absolutely shit the screenplay is worth a read.
posted by dobbs at 9:43 PM on March 11, 2007

Response by poster: These are all excellent suggestions! I am excited to get to work enjoying and then dissecting each one.

Dobbs - you are right, Chinatown isn't really a "Missing Person" story; I had thought of it as an example in a slightly different context and then re-worded without changing it. A better example might be something like underrated (for understandable reasons... but underrated nonetheless) "Angel Heart," which has that bizarre shift from picayune to apocalyptic (as does Kiss Me Deadly).
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 10:10 PM on March 11, 2007

Laura and Bunny Lake is Missing--both recently reprinted by the Feminist Press at CUNY.
posted by brujita at 10:12 PM on March 11, 2007

brujita, I was going to say Laura, but it doesn't really have that shift where it opens up into something bigger.

The 39 Steps (both the book and the Hitchcock film version) totally has that plot structure, though they aren't what I'd call noir. The Hitchcock version, especially, seems like a prototype for stuff like The Third Man.

(PS You seriously liked Angel Heart?)
posted by SoftRain at 11:54 PM on March 11, 2007

Brick is fantastic and fits the noir+missing person bill nicely.
posted by Lucie at 12:56 AM on March 12, 2007

re: Brick.
posted by dobbs at 7:14 AM on March 12, 2007

Response by poster: I am off to the bookstore to do some homework. Thanks again, everyone!

SoftRain - I do have a fondness for Angel Heart, though it definitely has some unavoidable flaws (most notably of which is the cheesy last moment of the film). It very thoroughly constructs a believable world which seems perched right on the edge of hell - down to the sweat and grime, the apocalyptic apathy, and the decaying of every little object in the ridiculously meticulous production design. I also like Mickey Rourke in the neo-noir hard boiled role. Not many films can create such a fluent (and creepy - to a point) sense of tone.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:30 AM on March 12, 2007

Jim Thompson's The Getaway kind of satisfies the missing person scenario in the sense of "being on the run". The ending is downright creepy, and features a bunch of "missing" persons.
posted by subajestad at 10:02 AM on March 12, 2007

Cornell Woolrich's novel Phantom Lady is a knockout. A pickup date is his only alibi, but no one remembers having seen her! Will he be able to find her again before it's too late? (Definitely noir, the noirest noir.)

The movie Joe is a "runaway hippie daughter" story. The dad wanders about the Village trying to find her and eventually does--with terrifying results! In all seriousness, though, it's a pretty good movie, though not noir at all.
posted by scratch at 10:03 AM on March 12, 2007

Double Jeopardy maybe? Kind of a lame movie but it might fit your criteria.
posted by slenderloris at 11:13 AM on March 12, 2007

Personally, I've always liked The Big Sleep.
Philip Marlowe is hired to clear up some gambling debts a spoiled, rich girl is getting black-mailed over. For some reason, though, everyone thinks he's been hired to find Sean Regan, who's married to the girl's older sister.
Most of the people Marlowe meets assume that Sean was bumped off by the devilishly handsome gangster, Eddie Mars, for sniffing around Eddie's wife...who has also disappeared. Things turn out to be a little more complicated than that. So complicated, in fact, that even Chandler can't remember who shot the driver.

Also seconding The Big Lebowski. It's the best Noir made in the last 40 years, IMO.
posted by Eddie Mars at 11:57 AM on March 12, 2007

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