London, England. Two women, the same age. Both married. Both gone missing on the same day at the same time. The mind-blowing reason behind these similarities delivers emotional whiplash in Adele Parks's heart-pumping psychological thriller Woman Last Seen.
Somewhere, an unnamed woman awakens, chained to a radiator in an unfurnished room. Her screams for help are answered by "the distinct sound of the keystrokes of an old-fashioned typewriter being pounded. A sort of shuffling rat-tat-tat. Slow, precise. Like a hostile countdown." Then a sheet of paper is ripped from the carriage, and the typed message is shoved under the door: "I am not the villain here." Who is this woman, and who is her kidnapper?
Leigh and Mark Fletcher have been married for 10 years and enjoy a happy, working-class life raising their two teenage kids, Oli and Seb. Mark is a local landscaper and Leigh works as a business consultant. Her job takes her out of town every week from Monday morning to late Wednesday night. When Leigh doesn't show up on a Thursday, and Mark's repeated calls and texts to her go unanswered, he calls the police to report his wife missing, informing them that he and Leigh speak on the phone every day, regardless of her travel schedule.
The officers assigned to the case, Detective Constable Clements and Constable Tanner, ask if Mark checked in with Leigh's office. But Mark doesn't have the number or the name of the company; he only ever rings her cell phone. He has reached out to Leigh's close friend Fiona, but Fiona has no idea where Leigh might be. Mark admits that a quarrel with his wife the night before she left for work led to his sleeping on the couch, but swears it was the type of silly row common to most married couples. After getting a photo of Leigh, Clements and Tanner set out to investigate her disappearance, though with a grim feeling they might be searching for a body.
Back at the police station, Thursday appears to have become the day for missing wives--Clements catches a similar case: a man named Daan Janssen, who lives in an affluent neighborhood a few miles from the Fletchers, has reported his wife, Kai, missing. Leaving Tanner to work on the Fletcher case, Clements heads out to interview Janssen.
Kai Janssen makes regular, extended weekly visits to her ailing mother from Monday through Wednesday. Daan last saw his wife a week ago and last spoke with her three days after that. Daan tells Clements he thinks someone has Kai's phone and is pretending to be her via text. His calls to Kai have gone unanswered; they usually check in with each other daily when she's away. He did receive a clipped text from her: "Can't come home right now." Fearing something had gone horribly wrong with her mother, Daan tried calling, but only got Kai's voicemail. He texted asking if her mother's condition had gotten worse. Kai's response this time was one word: "Yes." This is unusual because Kai likes to talk, not send curt texts, and always returns Daan's calls. He doesn't have the name or number of the care home where Kai's mother lives, nor any contact information for his wife's friends. It hasn't been an issue because she's always reachable on her cell. Daan also admires his wife's independence.
Clements thinks Daan might be overreacting until he shows her a picture of his wife. It's a shocking revelation that changes everything, not just in the Janssen case but for the one involving the Fletchers as well.
From the hair-raising opening chapter of Woman Last Seen to the violent confrontation between a complicated protagonist and even more complex tormentor, Adele Parks takes readers on one scream-worthy ride. The metaphorical noose around the imprisoned woman is slowly tightened until it's almost hard for readers to breathe. The monsters in the story are humans whose diabolical actions are driven by bitter jealousy and the simple need to be loved and give love in return. Each character's motives feel almost justifiable. Mark's previous wife died from cancer, leaving him with two boys to raise and the desperate need for a replacement wife to help out. The gorgeous, successful Daan has grown weary of the countless clingy women he beds, but who unceasingly fail to challenge him. Each married a woman who fulfilled his respective needs and with whom he created a seemingly happy life.
Woman Last Seen contains very little violence; instead, Parks metes out a plethora of deep emotional cuts, reminding readers the best villains are ones the protagonists don't see coming. Sometimes the most unfathomable pain is doled out by people who profess the most love for their victims, and betrayal comes from one's closest confidantes. And sometimes innocents are caught in the crossfire. Not one of these characters remains unscathed. Adding to the cruelty, there are subtle mentions of a pandemic beginning to affect London that appears to be helping the villain get away with it all. Riveting from first page to last, this is one thriller crime fiction fans should not miss. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis