The Nation's Pulse

Being Someone Else

Getting away from it all -- for good.

By 11.8.07

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If you have seen the movie The Maltese Falcon you have very nearly read the book. Director John Huston assigned the book to a script assistant, and ordered that factotum to prepare a summary of the plot, with all the dialogue included. Dashiell Hammett wrote The Falcon almost entirely in dialogue. All those great lines you remember: "Now, I am afraid I must search your apartment." "Sure, go ahead." "Oh, you are good." "Now you're really dangerous." They all came from the book.

But the script gofer left out one long story Spade told at one point in the book, maybe thinking it went on too long for the movie's purposes. Spade tells about a San Francisco man, nobody special, just an office guy who disappeared one day, leaving behind an ordinary wife and an ordinary couple of kids. Spade never could find the guy, and the case was officially dropped.

By accident, Spade found the man some years later in Portland. And at this point in the story, Hammett says, Spade would grin his Mephistophelean grin and say, "This is the part I always liked." The man was working a job much like his old one, had married a new woman much like his old wife, lived in a house a great deal like his old house, even had kids a lot like his former kids.

When Spade talked to the man, he found out that, on the day he disappeared, the man had been narrowly missed by a heavy load falling off the side of a building. It seemed to make a break in his life, and he just walked away.

MY WIFE AND I HAVE BEEN READING THE MYSTERIES of a prolific Boston-area writer named William Tapply. Through the first several books we read, the plots and writing seemed perfectly smooth and serviceable, the stories of a single-practice Boston attorney named Brady Coyne, a middle-aged divorced man. Then one of Tapply's books, Close to the Bone, gripped both Sally and me because it dealt with Sam Spade's "part I always liked" -- a man who engineered his own disappearance not once, but twice.

Tapply's character, a driven, ambitious criminal lawyer, pulls his disappearance because of a stricken conscience: he has had to defend too many awful criminals. One's motive for disappearing could be anything, of course, all the way down to simple boredom or curiosity. In Robert Duvall's movie, The Apostle, his character flees from a violent act.

For whatever reason, Tapply's description of the lawyer's simple cabin on the shore of an isolated New Hampshire lake was what grabbed me: linoleum floor, wood stove, propane burners, a rag rug, a rump-sprung couch, a porch overlooking the shore.

For years, I have known I could never do such a thing. I am tied to medical necessities as tightly as Gulliver found himself bound down by Lilliputians. I need drugs, life support systems, and regular monitoring. I could go away, but I would still be me, quite stuck.

ACCORDING TO THE FBI'S National Crime Information Center, as of 2006, there were just over 110,000 missing persons in the United States, of which about 60 percent were teens or young adults. The NCIC breaks down such people by possible reasons for disappearance: chance of mishap, catastrophe, Alzheimer's, and so on. A final category of "other," designated EMO, includes those for whom there is "a reasonable concern for their safety" -- probably meaning no more than that someone is worried about them. That figure is about 34,000 -- some 34,000 people at any one time of sensible, adult age have simply gone away.

A large proportion of those missing adults are probably borderline lawbreakers. How many are just plain old ordinary folks, like Sam Spade's missing man? How many are men? How many women? Somehow, I suspect more men than women leave.

How about you? Have you ever thought of cashing out, packing a bag, and taking off? Or perhaps you've already done it. Have you ever been someone else?

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.