A crime novel, but better

Tim Gautreaux's fine new book could be mistaken for a conventional crime novel. "The Missing" features the kidnapping of a precocious child who has a beautiful mother, an alluring singer on a riverboat. Our hero, on an obsessive search for the ruthless kidnappers and the wealthy villain who hired them, takes a job on with the boat so he can ferret out clues along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

The child's father is killed after a confrontation with the barely civilized backwoods rogues who snatched his child. Readers of conventional crime novels recognize the father's death as a convenient device to set up the inevitable romance between hero and grateful mother.

The hero's nickname is Lucky. How noir can you get?

But Gautreaux doesn't write conventional crime novels. The mysteries at the heart of "The Missing" are of the existential sort. He writes about relationships evolving amid stress, loss and tragedy.

Nicknamed "Lucky" because his troop carrier landed in France the day World War I ended, Sam Simoneaux worked as a floor walker in a New Orleans department store (lowliest job ever for a crime novel hero). The kidnappers snatch the kid from under his nose. He's fired but told that if he can find the child, he can have his job back.

The search takes Sam to the rowdy river ports, backwater settlements and smoky mill towns of the early 1920s. And Gautreaux's lyrical prose fairly soars. A reader can imagine himself on that riverboat.

"Late in the day, the boat slid around a muddy bend, and there on the west bank rose a long series of iron smokestacks like spines on a poisonous caterpillar, little coal-burning factories spewing smoke and unworldly smells into the damp afternoon . Sam watched a smelter spew orange smoke; at the river's edge, discharge pipes from a creosote plant pushed out gouts of ebony foam. A cottonseed-oil mill, a broom factory and the Gettum Rat Poison plant huddled by the levee. Painted on the water tower above the last factory was a giant rodent writhing on its back. Tiers of company shacks, each like the other, sweltered up the naked hill toward where somewhat better houses with board sagging porches were skylighted on the ridge."

The river passage becomes an exploration of the era's music, as the boat's black jazz band carries the New Orleans sound upstream, some of it not well received among the "coal stained, thick voiced, and bent, a hard used population with limps, eye patches, bad breath, casts in the eye, crooked teeth or none, missing fingers."

Jazz flows through "The Missing" like another river. So too do nuance and ambiguity. Notions of revenge and retribution that might have driven a conventional mystery to dry up like a desert stream.