“She tried not to feel afraid for herself. He had made no real threat at all. But there was murder in the air.”
Miss Moynton can hardly believe her eyes. A man is standing in the bushes at the edge of the schoolyard. “Marion,” he calls out softly. “Marion.” Even after he runs away, her worry remains—one of her second-grade students is named Marion.
The principal doesn’t seem concerned, however, and neither does little Marion’s mother. Miss Moynton is a new young teacher. Maybe she’s imagining things. Maybe she’s overreacting. After all, it’s not as if anything really happened. At least, not yet.
The Abductor begins with a suspenseful premise as it follows the troubled lives of three potential kidnapping targets. Over the next twenty-four hours, it develops into a more straightforward thriller centered around a harrowing moral dilemma. While interesting from an ethical perspective, I did not find this aspect of the story as compelling on a human level. The personal stories of the victims and bystanders (innocent and guilty) are what provide the real mystery: Why do people make the choices they do? How can we protect each other from danger when the biggest danger lies within ourselves?
The first possible victim is seven-year-old Marion Charles, who is often left alone by her hapless single mother, Betty. Miss Moynton’s report of the man in the bushes barely registers for Betty. Her fiancé sees no room in his life for another man’s child, so she has a big decision to make about Marion. It would be easy to despise Betty if she were not so terrified by her own inability to cope with life.
Even needing glasses the way she did, she could see how her hair was fading and how the shape of her face was almost imperceptibly not young anymore. Thirty-seven was a tough age for a woman. Forty was staring at you right around the corner…Office managers looked at you as if you were dead, if you had to admit to being over thirty-five.
Her existence feels like a dead end. Marriage to Tommy seems to be her only chance of securing a future. Betty ignores the fact that “actually she and Tommy didn’t have a lot to talk about except wasn’t it marvelous to be in love, and where should we eat.” Instead, she concentrates on the dream home he’s promised her, the house with everything except her daughter.
Marion’s classmate, Marilyn Trent, has two loving parents but they, too, are full of fear. As soon as she comes home from school, Carol and Bruce Trent question their daughter. Did anyone follow her home? Did anyone try to speak to her? Marilyn is wise to stranger danger (“we saw a movie in the auditorium”), but a young child can never be completely trusted to follow instructions out in the real world. Her parents don’t dare tell her about the real danger, the one that drove them to uproot their lives and move across the country.
The final player in this deadly game is substitute teacher Marion Kennick, who has a secret life outside of the classroom. Is Marion’s double life finally catching up with her?
All three possible victims lead precarious lives even without the threat of kidnapping—in the case of the children, their parents have exposed them to threats the little girls are not even aware of. No one takes any real action about it until the man in the bushes makes his appearance, a physical embodiment of the fears that have been swirling around these characters for far too long.
Even more depressingly, several adults perceive the danger of the situation, but their efforts are rather feeble. As the principal points out, though there is reason for concern, nothing actually has happened yet. There are no real crimes here. Trespassing, hang-up phone calls, a car parked outside the school that’s just a little too shabby for the neighborhood—these are nuisances, not serious charges. Police can’t arrest a shadow for a crime that has not yet been committed. And maybe there’s an innocent explanation, in which case they’ve embroiled the school and the families in a needless scandal.
The bystanders’ dilemma is almost reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, in which a number of small actions, harmless in themselves, add up to a murder. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the whole picture. Most of these people have very sensible reasons for acting as they do. Some of them have no reason at all. In the process, each is making their little contribution toward a potential tragedy.
“When I look back,” he said, his tone bitter and wondering, “I can’t see a single step that I might have changed, then. Eact act and each decision seemed right at the time…And yet in the end, somehow, it added up to what Witt Kennick said. We gave away our responsibility. Somewhere. We passed it on to others and they acted out our parts for us.”
The Abductor is an examination of what people owe each other: parents and children, teachers and students, even total strangers. The crime, when it comes, creates a tremendous moral conflict for everyone involved, but it is only the climax of a number of smaller choices made along the way. This lends a welcome unpredictability to the plot. As in real life, it’s not always clear which people will turn out to be heroes, villains, or something in between—not even to themselves.
Anthony Boucher, New York Times, April 1, 1962
Mrs. Hitchens combines strong cumulative suspense with neat and bitter sketches of the families involved in a forceful blend of irony and excitement.
The Abductor is out of print with only a few used copies available, though there is one inexpensive copy waiting to be snapped up.