- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Evan Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $23, 208 pages

Although he has written close to 100 novels, Evan Hunter remains best known as the author of "The Blackboard Jungle," the story of a high-school teacher's struggle to reach delinquent students, published in 1954. Director Richard Brooks turned the book into an acclaimed film starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, with Bill Haley blasting "Rock Around the Clock" over the opening credits.
Mr. Hunter has been successful in Hollywood, producing scripts for "Strangers When We Meet," a 1959 melodrama about adultery starring Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak, and "The Birds," Alfred Hitchcock's 1962 suspense classic. Over the years, he has cranked out more than 50 cop novels under the pseudonym Ed McBain, "the longest, the most varied, and possibly the most popular crime series in the world," according to the author's web site, www.edmcbain.com. Mr. Hunter can back up the boast: He has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and was the first American to receive the British Crime Writers Association's Cartier Diamond Dagger award.
Mr. Hunter's latest, "The Moment She Was Gone," is set in his native New York (the author now lives in Connecticut) and shares other elements with his earlier work, in the sense that it's a psychological thriller with emphasis on character rather than plot. This time, however, he tells his story in flashbacks, so that the book's mysteries unravel mostly in his characters' minds. The heroine of the story has gone missing, but her family must search for her by rehashing their memories. In the end, their introspection delivers the clues they need to find her spiritually as well as physically.
That Annie Gulliver, an attractive but troubled woman in her mid-30s, has disappeared isn't necessarily a cause for alarm, for she has been running away from home since she was a teenager. Indeed, her body is a visual record of her wayward life. "Her tongue is pierced," writes Mr. Hunter. "She wears a little silver circlet in it, which she says she purchased at a bazaar in Katmandu. She wears another silver circlet through her left nostril (Hong Kong) and yet another through the brow over her right eye (Sri Lanka)."
While her penchant for piercings is all too common among urban women of a certain age, Annie is a jewelry maker she specializes in pornographic creations befitting her status as a Tantric adept, an adherent of an Eastern philosophy that emphasizes self-actualization through sexual ecstasy. Yet Annie is hardly promiscuous, except as she portrays herself in her travel stories. Rather, she seems increasingly isolated, a woman without lovers or friends.
Worst yet, her anecdotes about her experiences abroad have become irrational and violent, and she seems to have developed a penchant for getting into ever more serious scraps. Most recently, she claims to have been raped, beaten and incarcerated against her will while touring Sicily, although the doctor who treated her tells another tale. Annie was never accosted, according to the psychiatrist at Ospedale Santa Chiara, a mental institution. She was delusional, exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia.
"My sister has been in trouble since she was sixteen, I can't pretend she hasn't," says Annie's twin brother, Andy, the book's narrator. "In fact, from the first time she ran off to Europe alone, Annie has been the star of our little family show. A day does not go by without our discussing Annie's whereabouts, or her well-being, or her finances. Not a single day. Annie has been the central concern in our lives for the past eternity now. Or perhaps longer. But before Sicily, no one ever told us she was mentally ill."
Andy's outburst, part complaint, part concern, embodies his family's mixed feelings toward this prodigal daughter. But Andy is an untrustworthy narrator, or perhaps simply a disingenuous one. For one thing, he harbors resentment toward his sister, who appears to be responsible for the breakup of his marriage. For another, he seems to have willfully misinterpreted a whole series of incidents which, in light of the doctor's diagnosis, now suggest that Annie has suffered from schizophrenia since she was a girl.
"The Moment She Was Gone" thus becomes Andy's revisionist family history as he recounts episode after episode about Annie's aberrant behavior. In high school, for example, she accused girls on the rival soccer team of conspiring to break her leg, an incident that transformed her from a popular A student into a whining loner.
After graduation, while touring with a rock band, she was convinced FBI agents were trailing her, a hallucination that would blossom into full-blown paranoia in her 20s. When she found herself in a hospital during a bout of malaria (contracted during a trip to Papua New Guinea), she ranted and raved about the American health-care system plotting to steal her identity, another obsession that eventually overwhelmed her reason.
As it turns out, Andy wasn't the only one deceiving himself about Annie. His mother, Helene, and older brother, Aaron, both knew she suffered from some sort of mental disorder but chose to ignore the evidence. Aaron, for his part, had become isolated from the family, and had rejected his wife and her two illegitimate children. Helene, for hers, can't admit that her daughter is disturbed, in large part because she has struggled with similar demons herself. In fact, her mental instability may have driven her husband away Terrence Gulliver abandoned his family when Annie and Andy were young and left her with unbearable guilt and anger.
Mr. Hunter's decision to present Annie's descent into madness through the recollected past allows him to compress a family's long struggle into a short novel. Unfortunately, his narrative technique robs the book of its immediacy, and requires readers to embrace characters who appear clueless or callous. Annie's bizarre behavior is excusable, but the rest of her family act in ways that defy understanding.
True, the entire family experiences a collective epiphany when, finally, they come to see Annie and themselves as they really are even if the novel ends with everyone still bickering about who's to blame for Annie's illness. Of course, nobody is to blame, and everyone is, in the sense that each of the Gullivers failed Annie at some point in time. "The Moment She Was Gone" turns out to be a study in physics as much as psychiatry: Time and motion truly is … relative.

Rex Roberts is a freelance writer, editor and designer based in New York City.

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