Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Matthew Iden has never shied away from exposing the macabre and virulent aspects of the world in his writings, and in Birthday Girl he dives yet again into the abyss known as the human mind. In this story, we are presented with a former criminal psychologist, Elliot Nash, living on the streets of Washington after his life went off the rails following the murder of his daughter. Fate does throw him a bone when a woman seeks out his help, believing her child to not only still be alive a year after the abduction, but also part of a series of kidnappings having claimed seven children so far.
Table of contents
Matthew Iden Takes us into the Human Abyss
Every year hundreds of thousands of people around the Earth disappear seemingly without a trace; some find their way home, others are discovered after their expiry, and of course there are those who are simply never found again at all. It’s the sort of relatively wide-spread occurrence, happening all over the world, yet one we give little thought to until one day we find ourselves touched by it; none of the people who have dealt with a close one going missing foresaw themselves in such a situation.
There are few worse nightmares than the one faced by the parents of children who have gone missing, their fate uncertain yet expectantly ominous… and it’s precisely the kind of horror Matthew Iden plunges us into with his new novel, Birthday Girl.
The novel opens with the introduction of perhaps one of the more “down on their luck” characters I’ve come across recently, Elliot Nash. A former criminal psychologist, he now lives on the streets of Chicago as his life fell in total ruins following the murder of his daughter. With only his own nightmares to fuel him, Nash lives a life which only begs for the question as to why it’s still going. The universe, however, decide to throw him a bone and perhaps a chance at redemption: a woman by the name of Amy Scowcroft seeks him out in search of help.
Her daughter has been missing for over a year, and despite the police looking at it as a hopeless case, she maintains hope of her child being alive. What’s more, it appears her daughter may not be the only victim: at least six other kids from broken homes disappeared around their birthdays. Seeking a renewed lease on life and with nothing to lose, Elliot accepts Amy’s request and goes to work on the dark and secretive streets he knows so well, neither of them realizing how deep into the heart of darkness this path will lead them.
The Study of Abduction
Before we begin to actually talk about Birthday Girl, I would like give a bit of forewarning as to the content found within. It contains many realistic and obviously well-researched depictions of the world revolving around child abductions, and as you might imagine there are more than a few heavy moments which I believe even seasoned readers of such genres will find impacting.
Now, with this being said, as difficult as some of the parts might be to imagine and get through, the story does nevertheless contain a rather eye-opening study into the afore-mentioned realm of child abductions. The author takes care to explain in great detail various aspects of the process, to the point where some segments feel as if they might belong in a guide on how to avoid kidnappings; while the overall story might be fictional, the subject matter around which it revolves certainly isn’t.
From a more novelistic point of view, there are many powerful and harrowing scenes depicting the effects of the abduction on other people, namely the parents themselves. Iden has an undeniable talent for creating a bond between the reader and his characters; I personally had no trouble finding empathy for Amy, Elliot, and the countless others who have gone through the same as them. The pain of uncertainty, the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness and failure, the desperation pushing the boundaries of what we thought ourselves capable of… we become privy to the full spectrum of the experience.
A Mystery of Many Layers
Taking a moment to step back from the real world connections the story offers and looking at the plot from an entertainment perspective, there is a whole lot to enjoy here as well. To begin with, the pace actually moves along quite steadily and relatively fast, at least in comparison to what I expected based on the premise. Dull moments barely exist in this novel, if at all, as Iden always ensures he spends his time developing one thing or another.
The mystery as to who is behind the kidnappings and why always remains at the forefront of the focus and is progressively unravelled in a professional manner, always answering some questions and giving us new ones to follow. There are couple of truly clever twists which I admit I did not see coming, least of all the final reveal… and this isn’t the type of compliment I give out to novels willy-nilly (many great twists, at least on some level, tend to remain predictable).
An aspect which greatly helps support the progression of the plot is the variety of the characters we come across over the course of the story. The characterization in Birthday Girls is nothing short of breathtaking as the people are practically spilling from beyond the pages into our world. They all feel like unique humans you might encounter in real life, each with their own extensive set of small distinguishing characteristics, idiosyncrasies and aspirations. Iden even takes the time to shine the spotlight on the main cast individually, using a rotating structure for his chapters.
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Thankfully, this choice never devolves into anything confusing as the author’s descriptions always remain concise, simple, precise, and ultimately, easy to follow. By the end of it, I had the impression the cast had grown far beyond Elliot and Amy’s initial partnering.
The Final Verdict
Birthday Girl by Matthew Iden is both an educative and entertaining mystery thriller on the subject of child abductions. It succeeds in telling a gripping story with harrowing parallels to the horrors of real life, populated with a diverse and captivating cast of characters to help drive it along. If you feel you have the stomach for it, it’s a novel I highly recommend to any thriller aficionado out there.
Matthew Iden is an American author whose best known work is the Marty Singer series, including acclaimed novels such as Blueblood, One Right Thing and The Spike.
Before engaging himself in the world of literature full-time he has spent some time working with the United States Postal Service, the Forest Service in Alaska and international non-profit groups amongst other places.