Before It’s Too Late by Jane Isaac
‘The plan had been several months in the making, yet thwarted at the last moment. [He] only wanted to be friends…’
Isaac’s newest novel, Before It’s Too Late, is a crime thriller written with ease and insight. Chinese student Min Li goes missing following an argument with her British boyfriend, leaving the case in the still-recovering hands of Detective Inspector Will Jackman, who must solve her disappearance before time runs out and it is too late to help the missing girl.
While we follow Jackman in his attempts to recover Min and find her kidnapper, there are also snippets of narrative from the missing student, who has been thrown into a dark and lonely pit and left to suffer. Her kidnapper appears occasionally, bringing the basic supplies to keep her alive, but no more. Min spends nearly a week in total darkness, ‘a pile of faeces in the corner, rats lurking in the shadows.’ She is not totally alone for long though – after a few days in the pit, Lonny Cheung, another Chinese student, joins Min in captivity. Is there an unknown connection between the two international students? Is their ethnicity relevant to the kidnapping? Soon, Min and Lonny become closer, keeping each other company in the underground prison and sharing their warmth at night.
As Min grows weaker and the pair become ever more isolated, finding themselves increasingly close to starvation, time is ticking for Will Jackman, who is dealing with his own difficulties and familial affairs. His wife, Alice, has recently been injured in a car accident and doesn’t look likely to recover any time soon. Jackman returns home every night to an empty house, where he mulls over the case and thinks of his ill wife. The detective does, however, find comfort in his daughter, Celia, a student of close age to Min, making him all the more driven to find the kidnapper. Because the dynamics of this father-daughter relationship are so lovely to read, I would have liked to see more interaction between Celia and Jackman. Perhaps the detective will be revived in Isaac’s next novel!?
What’s clear is the amount of research Isaac has put into her novel. Before It’s Too Late is set against the gorgeous backdrop of Stratford-upon-Avon, accounting for nearly every pub and pebbled pavement. The book gives a stunning account of Chinese lifestyle and culture, from Min’s traditional Chinese roots to Lonnie’s life in Hong Kong. As an international student, Min’s parents expect education to come first, and she fears they will disapprove of her British boyfriend, Tom, who soon comes under fire himself. Lonny tells a story of an unhappy childhood, a depressed mother and a tear between nationalities. Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter features heavily, as the detective interviews anyone who may know anything and searches for Min’s uncle, a resident in the UK.
Like The Truth Will Out, Isaac’s previous novel, this story is rife with tension, fear and mystery. While they are held captive, Min chillingly asks Lonny, ‘we’re Chinese citizens. If we die down here, do you think they’ll fly us back to our families?’ Her words highlight the separation between nations and remind us of how far the victims are from home. Isaac’s is a story that needed to be told, and one which needs to be read by all who enjoy crime fiction, thrillers and detective stories.