I couldn’t remember why I had added Something Missing to my to-read list, so I was somewhat sceptical going into it. Matthew Dicks’ writing style didn’t improve my opinion at first. Something about Marin, a burglar who only robs select “clients” and only takes items that won’t be missed, changed my mind. Somewhere along the way, Dicks made me care, not just about Martin but about the proposition that he could help the people he is otherwise stealing from.
I can even point to when my opinion began to shift. Dicks telegraphs the change at the beginning of Chapter 3: “Some people can point to a specific day in their lives when everything changed. For Martin, that day was a Wednesday in October.” Yeah, not exactly subtle or inspirational. Dicks’ writing is flat, unassuming, with all the painstaking attention to describing details one might expect of a schoolchild who has received more than one gentle rebuke from a teacher on a scene assignment. The lack of dialogue, at least for the first part of the novel, compounds this issue: we spend most of our time inhabiting Martin’s head, from a third-person perspective. So while Martin’s almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, the reason why he is so successful at burgling houses unnoticed, justifies Dicks’ style, it doesn’t make the style any easier to read. And I admit that well into the book, even after I had begun to heartily enjoy it, I still struggled to derive a lot of pleasure from the writing itself.
So Something Missing is not a modern love letter to the English language and modern prose. But it is a quirky story about a sympathetic burglar. I love stories that take advantage of the moral ambiguity of the sympathetic criminal, and this book succeeded for me where The Hitman Diaries did not. Now, Martin is quite different from the main character of that book: he is about as sympathetic as one can make a career thief. He abhors violence. He goes to painstaking lengths to ensure that he only takes that which his clients won’t miss, whether it’s a roll of toilet paper or a diamond earring. Martin is about as close to an “honest criminal” as one can get, and it’s exactly by riding this paradox that Dicks succeeds in creating a boring character captivating enough to carry a novel on his shoulders.
See, the entire setup of Martin robbing select couples, whom he calls his clients rather affectionately, is hilarious and ripe for situation comedy. Indeed, it seems like that’s the direction in which Dicks is set to go in that fateful third chapter, when he finally stops introducing Martin’s career and relates an incident in which Martin is trapped in a client’s house when they come home. Oh no, Martin has to hide behind a sofa until he can escape undetected! But the husband is watching TV instead of taking a shower like his wife nagged him to! (Canned laughter here.) But Dicks understands that such a setup is limited to only a few good jokes before it become stale. He isn’t afraid to have Martin change and grow as the story progresses, something essential for any novel.
Martin begins Something Missing as someone who, well, is missing a lot in terms of personality. He has even less of a social life than I do. He hasn’t talked to his father in years. His career and fencing the proceeds of his career takes up most of his time. But he comes across as somewhat empty. So it’s nice to see that Martin cares enough about other people to take a risk to help the Claytons—and then to take an even bigger risk, a few chapters later, to help the Ashleys. He doesn’t have to do either of these things; he risks discovery by anonymously encouraging Alan Clayton to be a little more romantic or alerting Justine Ashley that her friend Laura has almost ruined her husband’s surprise birthday party. And when this has more profound consequences for him on a personal level, I kept worrying he would screw things up.
Then for the last act, Dicks raises the stakes again. Martin has the opportunity to jump from guardian angel to straight-up guardian when he discovers that one of his clients is in danger of being attacked and raped in her own home. He is faced with the dilemma of how to avert this without revealing his own illegal activities, either to her or to the police. Once again we’re confronting with the human contradiction: that which is legal is not necessarily that which is right. Martin is indubitably a criminal in the eyes of the law, yet does he really harm these couples by taking things they don’t notice are missing? And if he had never taken on this client, he would never have discovered the impending attack and been able to do something about it.
I admire the way that Dicks continually raises the stakes and the risks he takes in mixing such serious elements into what is otherwise a comedic novel. Something Missing does not stand out as a brilliant work of art. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining character sketch that avoids a lot of mistakes and pitfalls so easy for novels of its kind to fall into. I was getting good thrill out of this, and in the last few chapters where Martin truly has to step up, it became almost a thriller instead of an easy comedic read.