The reality of Scotland Yard's missing persons bureau is far from the bustling, paper-strewn and shade-haunted image created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and fostered reverently ever since.
It is, in fact, a team of 16 women?police and civilians? working quietly and efficiently in an antiseptic, sunlit room on the sixth floor of the Yard's headquarters in Victoria. The only pieces of paper in sight are gently running through electric typewriters.
Chief Superintendent Mary Wedlake has been in charge of all this for a little more than a year. "The job came with the promotion?I didn't ask for it," she says.
That remark belies her intense dedication, a thoroughly professional approach to her work that evidenced itself once the conversation touched on the most baffling case the bureau faces at the moment, two London children missing for a month.
On April 1, Susan Blatchford, aged 11, and Gary Hanlon, aged 12, were seen walking down a street near their homes in Enfield. Four weeks' work by hundreds of police and the bureau has failed to yield a single clue.
"We have tried everything," Miss Wedlake said. "Every house, every building, every farm, every school has been searched and searched again. Usually a child leaves some clue when it leaves home?but we have nothing. Hundreds of people have been questioned, the search has been extended to all parts of Britain, gravel pits and dams, woods and fields have been turned over ... we have nothing."
"Nothing" is a result that very rarely faces the bureau. At present there are 24 children under the age of 14 missing from their homes?a startlingly low figure when one learns that more than 1,500 children were reported missing last year alone.
"Children leave home for so very many reasons," Miss Wedlake said " Quite often their reasons for going have absolutely nothing to do with family life; they may be attracted by a passing circus, or by a boy friend who is off to Scotland for a holiday. We have had children tell us they simply 'kept going'?that is, they went out to visit a friend and, when their friend was not at home, they decided to go for a train ride . . . and so it goes."
A favourite and typical story is that of the three girls, all aged 15, who went missing from their homes in the Midlands a few months ago.
Frantic parents called in the bureau. A few days later a letter from one of the girls was delivered to her home. In glowing terms it described the wonderful holiday the three were having in Germany. The letter spelt out in detail local customs, descriptions of the countryside, and the people.
To Miss Wedlake, however, the letter somehow rang false. She urged the parents to wait just a week or so longer, and, sure enough, another letter arrived, this time saying the girls were in Wales, having a wonderful time working in a caf? and sharing a flat.
" Once again, the girls described the countryside, the villages and the people. We contacted the Welsh tourist authorities and they were able to pinpoint the locality."
Bureau officers and parents hurried to the village, and found the girls. "After the tearful reunions, the parents found that their daughters were in fact happy and content, having good jobs and a nice place to live, and enjoying the friendship and care of the locals. They are there to this day."
Miss Wedlake believes far fewer parents would go through the agony of waiting while police searched for their missing child if they would take a closer interest in the child's affairs.
" So often we have parents asking for our help, and yet they are unable to tell us who their child's friends are, where the child played after school, what milkbar or caf? he or she went to, or what interests he or she had.
" The only advice I can offer is this?involve yourself in your children's lives as circumspectly as possible. Learn the names and addresses of playmates, the location of amusement parlours and woods, care about what they do and where they go and who they go with. Believe me, there would be a lot less parental heart-searching today if that was done more often."
[The bodies of Susan Blatchford and Gary Hanlon were found in Epping Forest in June 1970. Ronald Jebson was only convicted of the so-called "Babes in the woods" murders in May 2000.]