Readers will be pleasantly surprised by Bancroft’s skillful buildup of tension and eye for logical revelations that drive the plot. And Bancroft doesn’t draw the line at delivering dramatic suspense: he smoothly incorporates social themes into the novel, giving readers the lowdown on family law and divorce dynamics in the process. As Green digs deeper into the Harbisons’ history, the red flags accumulate, leading her to suspect that Kelly may be more than just a concerned father—and there may be more at stake for Lauren and Brandi than anyone imagined. Green’s passion for the truth is evident despite her questionable tactics (like entering Lauren’s home without a warrant or going undercover in a local safe project for battered women), making her an engaging, surprising character.
Readers who appreciate a sense of justice driving their mysteries will relish Bancroft’s plot development, and his reference to real-life court cases elevates the storyline. Some characters fit too easily into the tropes of the genre, particularly the law enforcement officials who take a backseat to an entry-level journalist more adept at finding and parsing clues, but the satisfying conclusion ties it together neatly and will leave readers curious for the next installment.
Takeaway: This satisfying mystery debut finds a young journalist investigating the disappearance of a mother and daughter.
Great for fans of: Samantha Jayne Allen’s Pay Dirt Road, Karin Slaughter.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
By Steve Pfarrer, Staff Writer
In Custody by Lundy Bancroft
Lundy Bancroft, a consultant on domestic abuse and child maltreatment, has written widely on the subject of battered wives and girlfriends contending with abusive men. In books such as “Why Does He Do That?” and “The Batterer as Parent,” he also examines the effect abusive men can have on their children, including how these issues may play out in custody battles and post-separation visits.
In his latest book, “In Custody,” Bancroft, of Northampton, takes a new approach to the topic. It’s his first novel, a story set in a modest-size town in eastern Ohio where a mother and her daughter suddenly vanish, leaving the women’s angry ex-husband even angrier; he believes his ex has kidnapped the girl. Police and then a local reporter are drawn into a story that seems to get murkier by the day.
On a blog on his website, Bancroft says he wrote “In Custody” to give readers an accessible means of understanding the problems in a court system that he believes allows abusive men far too much access to their children once they’re no longer living with a child’s mother.
“I’m hoping [the novel] can be a way to reach friends, relatives, and other people in our lives,” he writes. “Maybe it can even bring about some degree of shift in the outlook of individuals who have been … unable to take in what’s actually happening to mothers.
“The custody court,” Bancroft asserts, “has become the number one enabler of domestic violence and child abuse in the world.”
His novel begins with the volatile Kelly Harbison barging into the local police station to yell at the on-duty officer about how he’s certain his no-good ex-wife, Lauren, has absconded with their 10-year-old daughter, Brandi. The two parents share custody, and Brandi was supposed to be back in his care six hours earlier. Neither mother nor daughter have answered his phone calls, Kelly says.
“I’ve been telling people for months, no years, that this was going to happen!” he rages. “Does anybody listen to me? No! What in hell do I have to do?”
The police are skeptical at first and tell Kelly they need more information on Lauren before they can declare this a missing person case. Meanwhile, Carrie Green, a young intern at the local newspaper, is assigned to look into the story, mostly because the managing editor thinks it won’t amount to much.
But for reasons Carrie can’t figure out, Kelly, who has all the charm of busted concrete, tells her details about his ex-wife and his daughter that make for a compelling story. And when Lauren and Brandi remain missing after several days, the police ratchet up their investigation, including leaning on a friend of Lauren who they suspect knows something about her whereabouts.
The FBI is drawn into the case, and cub reporter Greene is fast becoming a media star, writing front-page stories that are picked up by other papers in the region and beyond. Though she’s not yet 21, she has plenty of gumption and is soon going undercover to investigate another angle to the story.
The police are pissed that Carrie seems to know things about the case that they don’t — as well as information they haven’t released to the public. She doesn’t like them any better; she grew up in a poor neighborhood where cops pushed people around. But reporter and police eventually begin to realize they may need each other, especially as the case gets ever more confusing: Who actually poses the biggest threat to Brandi?
Among the plot twists is an affair between Carrie and a wealthier, slightly older journalist, Gavin Neal, who’s also pulled into the case. And though it’s a serious book, “In Custody” has moments of humor. A mother who listens to her 9-year-old daughter speaking to her — “You’ve been acting, like, weird lately? Like, it would be cool to know what’s going on?” — can’t believe the girl has four years to go before becoming a teenager because “she already had the routine down.”
If Carrie’s derring-do and journalistic savvy seem at times to stretch credibility, the young reporter is a compelling character, and her awakening to what Bancroft calls “the hidden realities of the child custody system” — the author has drawn on some grim, real-life child custody stories for the novel — brings an undeniable page-turning element to “In Custody.”