Frank Elder lives a spartan and solitary existence on the isolated Cornwall coast, seeking a measure of peace from a marriage gone wrong, his wife Joanne’s infidelity finally impossible to ignore. Seeking comfort in isolation, Elder leaves everything familiar behind in Nottinghamshire, his career as a police detective, his marriage and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Katherine.
Although loathe to leave Cornwall, Frank is a detective at heart and cannot resist the siren call of one more request, this time related to a missing girl and another brutally tortured and slain. Acting on the request of detective Maureen Prior, Elder returns to Nottinghamshire with some trepidation.
One of the perpetrators of a kidnapping-murder has been released on parole; Prior believes Shane Donald may lead them to the other missing girl who has never been found. To that end, she persuades Elder to help in a renewed effort to reopen the case.
Although Shane hasn’t admitted knowledge of the disappearance of Susan Blacklock, it is possible that the young man has information that will aid the investigation. But when Donald, whose former crime was heinous in the extreme, is threatened, he disappears from the assigned group home into the countryside.
While the police diligently search the countryside for Donald, who has completely disappeared, a young woman is abducted and later found brutally murdered, much like the crime for which Shane Donald has just been paroled. The quest grows more frantic, everyone working against time.
The other Frank Elder novels refer to a seminal event in Elder’s family that haunts them profoundly; this first Frank Elder mystery resolves that particular question, the unstoppable course of events that forever traumatizes sixteen-year-old Katherine. It has all begun simply enough with this case, one more time that Elder can’t resist when his expertise is solicited.
Meanwhile, Harvey sweetens the plot with more than one potential resolution, yet another set of remorseless criminals, Donald’s partner-in-crime, still behind bars but reaching out, Frank’s horrific dreams, too much publicity, and Elder’s daughter caught in a nightmare beyond imagining.
The dour Elder is a driven man, no doubt, but one with a compassionate heart and a realistic take on the checks and balances of the world. As Katherine’s desperate situation draws him into the crux of his moral dilemma, his role as a father, an ex-husband and a man is profoundly challenged.
Psychologically devastated by his own failings and inability to save his daughter from the dark side of the criminal element he knows so well, Frank Elder faces the most important test of his life.