Five students kidnapped, four families torn apart.
Lois Duncan is best known for her YA thrillers that involve a supernatural twist, such as telepathy or psychic intuition or witchcraft. However, her earliest YA works are straightforward suspense and mystery titles most notable for the depiction of the psychological group dynamics of high school students.
The Plot: It may have the simplest plot of Duncan’s suspense titles, but the tension as the story unfolds is absolutely relentless.
For various reasons, a group of high school students find themselves forced to take the bus home on Thursday afternoon in suburbs of Albuquerque. Preoccupied by their various teenaged worries, it barely registers that they have a substitute bus driver.
At the end of the route is the ritzy Valley Gardens subdivision, home to wealthy Glenn and Bruce Kirtland, the school football star and his adoring younger brother; cheerleader Marianne Paget, still brooding over her parents’ divorce and mother’s remarriage; morbidly introverted army brat Jesse French; and cynical loner Dexter Barton.
When the bus has emptied out to just these five the driver abruptly makes a detour and the bus is hijacked as a gun toting accomplice jumps aboard and informs them that they are being kidnapped and held for… Ransom!
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
The plot is straightforward, cutting between the teenagers plotting escape in the remote mountain cabin where they are being held and frantic parents trying to gather the $15,000 per child the kidnappers are demanding for their release.
As the days go by, the teenagers show their true colors, as cheerleader Marianne (who ended up riding the bus after brattily snubbing a ride home from her stepfather) proves to be a capable problem solver with nerves of steel, and a romance develops between world traveler Jesse and displaced New Yorker Dex… but does something seem a little off about Glenn?
Glenn Kirtland was never going to be paid for with ransom. From the very beginning his mind had refused to even consider the possibility. The disgrace of the situation was more intolerable than the danger. Glenn Kirtland, leader of the student body. Glenn Kirtland, captain of the football team. Glenn Kirtland, hero of the campus, 170 pounds of solid, well-coordinated muscle, snatched up and kidnapped like a baby! The helplessness of the image was infuriating.
Glenn is disappointed when a viable escape plan is formulated that depends on Marianne’s cunning and Dex’s automotive knowhow; even his hero-worshipping younger brother is starting to feel troubled by Glenn’s insistence that he hog all of the credit for himself. Glenn is untroubled:
Handling Bruce was no problem. All you had to do was buddy him. That was the one thing about having a kid brother who thought the sun rose and set on you. You smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder, and he would run and fetch for you till his legs fell off and be grateful for the opportunity.
Bruce’s devotion has proved especially useful as he has helped his brother cover up a minor fender-bender, unquestioningly accepting the fact Glenn would rather pay for the repair himself than deal with the insurance company; the fact that Glenn’s Mustang was in the shop is the reason why he, Bruce and Marianne all ended up on the ill-fated bus in the first place.
In the meantime, the parents are scrambling to come up with the ransom money. The Kirtlands are easily able to cash in some investments for their share, but the other families are struggling. Marianne’s wealthy father hangs up the phone when her mother and stepfather even mention money; the Frenches had lucked onto a short-term rental in the development and are flummoxed that anyone could mistake them for wealthy Valley Gardens homeowners; meanwhile orphaned Dex’s playboy uncle-guardian has taken off for Los Angeles without even noticing his nephew was gone.
The parents are also at a disadvantage having been placed under strict orders to not contact the police or discuss the missing teens amongst themselves: they don’t even know who or how many of their children have been taken. The Kirtlands are able to do some sleuthing and discover that Marianne is also missing, but Jesse and Dex remain completely off anyone else’s radar. They also learn that one of their sons’ classmates wasn’t on the fateful bus because he had been the victim of a hit-and-run driver. FORESHADOWING!
Marianne’s stepfather is appointed to deliver to ransom money to the kidnappers, lying through his teeth about having the full amount. Meanwhile the teens have put their own daring escape plans into motion. Are these the worst ideas ever? Will Marianne’s stepfather be able to bluff his way through this? Are all of those guns that are repeatedly mentioned ever going to be fired? Is the real danger to the teenagers a sociopath amongst their own ranks?
Yes, surprisingly yes, of course yes, and DUH OF COURSE YES!
Sign It Was Written in 1966 1946 (?) Department: “Maybe I haven’t spent my life doing jitterbugs and watching movies and mooning over football players, but I have known people, fine, interesting people.”
AKA Department: The book was briefly reissued under the title Five Were Missing, but the current print and eBook versions retain the original title.