Picture a woman, Anna Buck, walking anxiously, as though something has taken possession of her. Only at the last minute is she saved from jumping off Lewisham’s Bickley bridge. DCI John Marvel, the man who rescues her, is also full of regret that he has not been able to crack the unsolved case of Edie Evans who left home on her bike one dim January morning over a year ago and never arrived at school. Edie’s bicycle was found under a giant rhododendron on a stretch of green alongside the road. Edie’s blood was also found in the pavement that ran between the green and the road.
We aren’t quite sure what the connection between Marvel and Anna will be, only that Anna is certain the dead are waiting to speak to her. At one point, DCI
Marvel had employed local psychic Richard Latham to help find Edie. Meanwhile, Anna’s son, Daniel has also gone missing, disappearing one morning after the front door to their home was accidentally left open by James, Anna’s husband. Nobody has seen Daniel since that bitter November morning. Amidst the fast blur of panic and of the police, of cameras and of newspaper stories, all that is left of Daniel are his five footprints etched into the concrete of the forecourt of the grubby MoT car repair shop which James helps manage.
The footprints, “so glossy and dark that they were like works of art in a fancy gallery,” seem to be taking on a life of their own. Almost daily, Anna cleans them off, sinking slowly to her knees and fanatically brushing the cement with a toothbrush and then polishing them to “a gemstone shine.” Anna is positive that Daniel is still alive; she’s been telling herself this for four months and counting on blind belief and crazy hope along with a sort of desperate, marginal faith. After finding a leaflet of cheap white paper offering a private consultation by Richard Latham at the Bickley Spiritualist Church, the meeting awakens Anna’s personal psychic trauma, a dark shadow that leaves her defenseless and overwhelmed.
Something is happening to Anna, she just doesn’t know what; it’s something that seems to be no more than a “momentary flash of wild imagination.” Her hope is that Richard Latham is a liar and a fake even as she comforts herself with the thought that perhaps he really is psychic. Exhibiting an extreme thirst and seeing visions of a fake garden and a broken glass jug, Anna turns to the only person she can trust:
the gruff, disconsolate man who saved her.
Bauer unfolds a strange, compelling plot of missing children, of “a shut eye,” a performer who becomes so adept at the illusion of mind-reading that he comes to believe that he actually possesses psychic powers, and a woman who is pushed to the edge of despair before demanding a final accounting of her only son as well as her errant husband, who has turned to drink to ease the pain.
Frantically navigating the visions that have surfaced, Anna turns in desperation to Marvel and then to Sandra, a kindly woman whose dog, Mitzi, has also gone missing. Although Marvel is charged with finding Mitzi (ironically Sandra’s husband is the Chief Inspector of Lewisham’s Murder Squad), it is to Latham that Marvel ultimately turns for answers and to a series of his visions that remain random and unverifiable.
Bauer creates an intricate sense of loss that is steadily hijacking Anna and James’ disintegrating marriage as well as the lives of Edie and Daniel. Suddenly Marvel is bombarded with suspects and possibilities where before he’d had none. There’s also no rational explanation for Anna’s visions. Marvel’s first instinct is to shy away from them, even though there’s a notion that Anna Buck possesses mystical powers and perhaps has a psychic connection to Edie Evans and her killer.
From the gritty streets of Lewisham to the offices of the murder squad, where Marvel aches to get his much-needed promotion, to the easy camaraderie of the boys in James’ repair shop, to the furtive warnings of Latham that “the dead are in control and the dead choose what they know,” to the pleas of a little girl trapped by a space-man, Bauer unfurls a surprising climax in which the real crime is the assumption that two children do not matter and have become obstacles to be removed.