Summary: The Vanished Child
(My agent is working on Things with the books and asked for summaries. It occurred to me that, if a person were to have read The Knowledge of Water some time ago and didn't have the time to read it again before Crimes and Survivors, a summary would be a handy thing to have.
(So this has SPOILERS. Big ones. All the spoilers.
(You have been warned.)
Spoilers are approaching in the distance.
Here they come.
In 1887, 8-year-old Richard Knight witnesses the murder of his rich Bostonian grandfather. The murderer, Richard’s bastard cousin Jay French, apparently kidnaps and kills him.
Richard was his grandfather’s heir. Richard’s uncle Gilbert is the only surviving Knight, the heir by default. He will own the Knight Companies when Richard is declared legally dead.
But Gilbert believes Richard is still alive, and won't consent to have him declared dead.
19 years later, 1906. Richard would now be 27. Dr. Charlie Adair, who was Richard’s doctor, is an old man with heart disease. In Europe Adairsees a man who looks very much like a Knight and would be the right age.
The man is Alexander von Reisden, an Austro-Hungarian baron, has attempted suicide and is half-mad. He’s haunted by his own murder story. His wife died in a car accident. Without reason, he feels he wanted to kill her. Ever since he hasn’t been able to understand himself. He is isolated, lonely, and unwilling to be involved with human relationships.
But he is curious about the Knights and talks to a friend who writes true crime. Odd: If Richard were dead and William were alive, Jay French had some chance of being William’s heir. But Jay killed William before Richard.
Reisden comes to Boston for a conference. Gilbert Knight’s lawyer, Roy Daugherty, approaches him. Would he pretend to be Richard, just for an afternoon? And act badly toward Gilbert? Faced with this Richard, the lawyers think Gilbert won't want Richard alive.
Reisden is bored and sad and feeling mad. Why not?
Gilbert “recognizes” Reisden as Richard.
What now? Reisden does not remember much of his life before he was ten, grew up in a war zone, has no papers proving who he is. He’s not Richard; he’s sure of that; but how will he fix this embarrassing situation?
He decides to solve the mystery of Richard’s disappearance. He'll say he’s not Richard and will remember nothing about being Richard. But “Somebody killed Richard. Now Richard wants to know why.”
Gilbert has an heir, Harry Boulding. If Richard is alive, Harry will inherit nothing. Harry believes Reisden means to get money from Gilbert.
Harry has a fiancee, a 17-year-old girl, the young and innocent Perdita Halley. She is legally blind (she prefers “very nearsighted”) and wants to become a concert pianist. She believes that Reisden is Richard, so she tries to reconcile Harry to him and tells him he must stay.
Reisden, Gilbert, and Harry go to Lake Matatonic in New Hampshire, where the murders happened. Perdita is living in a hotel in the same summer resort. At “Richard’s” insistence, Roy Daugherty organizes a hunt for Richard’s body.
Preparations for Harry and Perdita’s wedding go on.
Perdita’s piano teacher stops her lessons; she won’t need them when she’s married. Reisden tells Perdita to fight it. Harry is furious. During a fire, Perdita goes into a burning building to rescue a child. Reisden follows her and saves both of them, risking his own life. It becomes clear how much Gilbert cares for his “nephew.” This further enrages Harry.
Charlie Adair becomes increasingly concerned about the future of Perdita's marriage.
Reisden confronts Gilbert about Richard’s history. Gilbert tells him that William physically abused Richard, beat Richard so severely that Richard could have died. Gilbert never meant the present-day Richard to know. Gilbert and Reisden get drunk together and talk about how violence has affected them.
Reisden’s belief that he’s not Richard is shaken.
Reisden’s true-crime friend sends him photographs of the murder scene. The photographs of William Knight’s dead body remind Reisden of his wife’s body. But it’s the other way around, isn’t it? It was William Knight’s death, not hers, that made him glad.
He is Richard. And if he is Richard, he’s sane.
He might not be a moral monster who was glad about the death of his wife.
But if he is Richard, he has to find out what happened to Richard.
Harry asks Perdita to give up the piano for him as proof of her love. She promises, but it’s an agony.
She asks Reisden for dancing lessons, to prepare for her first dance. They discover a body, so old it’s mummified. Is it Richard? Or the supposed murderer, Jay French?
At the dance, Perdita wears a sophisticated dress and Harry doesn't approve. Reisden sees a gloriously beautiful young woman, and a moment too late, realizes it’s Perdita. He dances with her in a side room, alone with her. They give way to their feelings for each other and kiss passionately. Charlie Adair catches them.
Late that night, Reisden hears Perdita playing the piano again and realizes she has broken her promise to Harry. He's glad for her, but very much afraid he's glad for himself too.
From a woman in town, Reisden discovers Jay French has an alibi. He didn't kill William.
Daugherty asks Charlie Adair to look at the body. Charlie realizes it’s Jay and his heart almost fails. On the day of the murders, William had been away. Richard found a stray dog. When William returned with Jay French, William broke the dog’s back and made Richard shoot it. That evening, William would have punished Richard, with Jay French’s help. Charlie Adair didn’t know what to do then and doesn’t now.
He makes drawings showing that the body in the barn is Richard’s. Returning to the barn later, he removes and destroys Jay’s body and discovers Jay’s gun.
Harry believes it's Reisden who destroyed the body. Reisden believes that the murderer has removed it to prevent the truth coming out. Gilbert Knight decides that he will have Richard declared dead, then give the Knight money to Reisden as Reisden.
Enraged, Harry tells Perdita Reisden isn’t Richard. Perdita asks Reisden, who tries to push her away; “be careful of me. You’ll have your Harry, whom you love, and your music.” She tells him Harry won’t let her have music. Then she tells him something about himself: if Richard wasn’t killed, he ran away.
Reisden denies it and she sees through his denial. If he doesn’t want to be Richard, “I won’t tell.” But she knows he’s Richard.
“Then don’t tell,” he says.
The next day is the anniversary of the murder. Perdita breaks off her engagement to Harry. She and Reisden don't know what they are to each other yet, but they are something.
Reisden presents Daugherty with Jay’s alibi; Daugherty refuses to accept it.
Gilbert and Reisden decide to act out the murder, like a play. Perdita acts Richard. Gilbert is William. Charlie Adair is himself. Reisden is playing either Jay French or the unknown third man who actually murdered William.
Reisden identifies Charlie Adair as the third man. No one believes him.
Reisden is left alone with Adair. Adair says he was at the murder scene, shot at Jay, and may have wounded him so badly he died. But he was protecting Richard.
It was Richard who shot William Knight.
Shocked, Reisden leaves the house. Charlie Adair follows him and Reisden turns back. He’s kept this secret by himself for a long time; he can’t do it any longer; he’s going to share it with Gilbert and Perdita. Adair still believes Reisden isn’t Richard. To keep Reisden from talking, Adair shoots him with Jay French’s gun. Perdita has followed them and tells Adair that Reisden is Richard. Adair’s heart gives out.
At the moment of his death, Adair finds himself talking with the young Richard. What will God think of me, Charlie asks Richard. Richard doesn’t know. Together they face whatever will come next.
Recovering, Reisden chooses to stay Reisden, though it hurts him to leave Perdita and Gilbert. He'll go to New York, then to Europe. Perdita is going to New York to study music. He, she, and Gilbert have one last evening together. To everyone's surprise, Perdita gets on the train with Reisden. Gilbert is left alone, but happy.