Norman Stokoe is the new “Children’s Czar” of England’s Northumberland, and he has fallen between bureaucratic cracks with the newly formed government. He has a brand new position but no green-light to do anything. Still, with a good salary, his secretary Pippa and an office with a budget, things could be worse. Then Willie, a small-time reporter from a local newspaper, comes to him with a theory about some children who have gone missing. Everyone has labeled them as runaways, but Willie doesn’t believe it. Soon both Pippa and Norman agree, but now they’re on their own to find out the truth.
If one had to choose a tagline for “Light Shining in the Forest”, Paul Torday’s last novel, it would have to be “Every five minutes a child goes missing in the U.K.”. In fact, the line is repeated several times in this novel, and was probably the inspiration for this book. But what Torday does with this is very interesting. To begin with, he tells the story totally in third person, where each chapter focuses on one of the characters involved. This includes the three abducted children, and the man who kidnaps them, the mother and step-father of one of the children as well as our three protagonists. This is hardly an innovation, but it with such a large cast, it works well with the subject material, and helps round out the story while building the suspense very nicely.
And it is the suspense building that really is at the heart of this novel. As Torday describes the actions of the antagonist, the tension in the story grows even further. This is essential to any good murder mystery novel, since without a really nasty bad guy, there’s nothing to make the reader anxious. The character that Torday describes here is a particularly creepy one – both in his looks and in his action. I would even go so far as to say that he would be an excellent perpetrator for an episode of the TV series “Criminal Minds”. If this was what Torday was working for, he certainly succeeded.
As the suspect becomes growingly disturbing, the humanity of the three people trying to find these children also seems to increase, which is paralleled with the pain and suffering of the families. Then, with all of this already going on, Torday throws in a twist which takes this story to a whole new level; one that is above and beyond the run-of-the-mill criminal drama genre. This twist could best be described as a supernatural element with Christian overtones. This might sound strange, but I’d prefer not to go into this any further, for fear of including spoilers in this review. At the same time, I have to say that this didn’t sit with me very well, and I’m not certain that it worked exactly as Torday might have hoped it would.
One thing you have to give to Torday is that he is very original. This is the third book of his that I’ve read, and not one of them is anything like the other. And while this was his last novel before his death, I’m not fully convinced that this was his best one. However, it was certainly the most compelling of all of his reads. Even when parts disturbed me, I just couldn’t stop reading, and writing like that is a skill essential to this genre. With this, Torday’s characters are marvelously formed, never stereotyped and without hardly ever describing their looks, each one is easily visible to the reader.
All of this shows what a huge talent we lost when Paul Torday passed away in December. Would that he had lived longer, there’s no telling what heights he could have soared to. So although this isn’t my favorite of his books (so far – there are three more he wrote that I haven’t read yet), I still would recommend it – especially to crime drama lovers – and give it a healthy four out of five stars.
“Light Shining in the Forest” by Paul Torday was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and was first released on January 31, 2013.