Just a few days ago I posted a request for some help finding some research materials for one of my current WiPs. I was almost immediately told that I should do my own writing and not write at all if I didn't have an imagination. I took the criticism in stride and did my best not to get all butthurt about it. The thing is I know that research makes better novels from my experiences as a reader. I won't speak for T.M. Williams and where she came by the same knowledge but she obviously knows the benefits of research because Clusters: Case of the Missing is not only well written, it's also well researched. More on that in a minute. It is also a highly entertaining SF meets detective novel cross-genre mash up that just kind of works.
Our story is about a reporter - Ethan "Call me Franco" Franco- who starts out writing a story about a local disappearance and ends up trying to figure out why they are so common. Along the way he works with a cast of characters, one of which ends up missing and presumed dead. He faces the typical reaction of families with recent losses toward reporters. William's attitude is a bit more sympathetic toward her character than mine was in the same circumstances but I've experienced a loss that was covered by the press. It wasn't pretty and I feel sorry for the guy who got my sister on the phone after my father drowned, but let's just say that scene hit me pretty hard. Others may not experience the scene the way I did. It's an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone. In a way it actually enhanced my enjoyment of the story. In another it exposed me to a side of my own personality that I'm not real proud of. Either way it was well written and had to be there.
The aforementioned side characters are well done and act right. I was a bit skeptical at first when Franco walks up to be part of a search (and cover it in the process) because I knew what should happen the second the rest of the team found out he was a reporter and it went down just about right. The thing is, Williams used a fairly predictable occurrence to teach us more about Franco and his dedication while giving the characters around him a reason to trust him. He still had to work hard to gain the trust everyone else got but it gave them a reason to let him in. It just worked. I haven't seen many similar situations handled with the same skill or instinct. Kudos to her.
I was a bit concerned about reviewing this at first because I wasn't sure that there was a real Science Fiction/ Fantasy element to it. It was teased a little bit early but it was nearly two-thirds of the way through the book before there was any explicit SF content. I won't spoil the surprise but I will say that it is there and, while it's not quite what I expected, it was worth the wait. And honestly, the story was worth reading as a mystery story even if it hadn't been. It's been a long time since I've really considered myself a fan of mystery stories, but if there were more like this I probably still would be.
Interspersed throughout the story are recaps of real life disappearances referred to as True Cases. Williams has placed them to enhance the story by showing us what real life case she used as source material for a given disappearance in the book. At the end are several more. They add to the X-Files like aura of the story. I also get the feeling that I was deliberately misled by the author at one point. What I had assumed was happening was not what was happening. Once revealed the secret made sense but it wasn't what I thought it would be. That's the mark of a great mystery writer. A well placed red herring set up the rest of the story brilliantly.
There is definitely a government conspiracy at work throughout the book. It's well written and believable. Williams not only shows us the what and why but the how. Left for us to determine- and it's easy because it's painfully obvious - is the who and when people are effected. This is something we've all seen and heard of. The phrase "Conspiracy Freak" is not just a description, it's an epithet. If some things were true, pointing them out would still get a person labeled as a loony in today's society. Williams looks that potential phenomenon straight in the face and calls us all on it. I got a good chuckle from that. "The secret is out" only works if people are inclined to believe you.
Speaking of which, there is definitely room for a sequel here and I'm going to call for one. Williams hints at what the exact nature of the conspiracy is, but never goes deeply into how far up it goes, who knows what or exactly how much danger the conspiracy is protecting us from. At the end of the day we're left wondering if this is something that is going to spread outside of the National Park System or if it will stay there. Clusters reads well as a self contained novel but there is much more story to be told. More questions are raised than answered as well.
Overall there wasn't much to complain about with the book except the lack of definable SF content throughout most of it. This book was a real page turner and, if things didn't go exactly how I wanted them to, at least they went a way that really worked for the story. Williams does mention the fact that often when someone disappears there is a freak storm afterward that obliterates evidence of where they may have gone. The characters in the book speak of freak weather as being part of the mystery. They seem to believe that whatever is causing the disappearances is causing the weather. Then the subject just drops and never reappears. I was waiting for something to tie that conversation to the greater plot but it never happened. In that respect, I guess I was a bit unfulfilled. Other than that though, this was an solid book.
Bottom Line: 4.25 out of 5 Lost Hikers
Clusters: Case of the Missing
AZ Publishing Services, 2014
Clusters: Case of the Missing can be purchased here: