My recent Jessica Mann reading binge has continued with A Private Inquiry, first published in 1996. This came twenty years after The Eighth Deadly Sin, which I discussed here recently, and the story is very different – but there are two elements which are similar.
The first is the way Mann shifts viewpoints. In the early stages of the book, she does so to almost bewildering effect. We begin with a planning inquiry, overseen by Barbara Pomeroy, and it seems as though this will be her story. But then the focus shifts to one of the inquiry witnesses, Fidelis, with off-shoots involving her new young assistant Sophie, Barbara’s family life, and the dodgy entrepreneur whose planning application is under consideration in the opening pages. It’s a clever and unorthodox technique, which has the effect that you don’t really know what the book is ‘about’ in terms of the central mystery, for quite some time.
The second is the focus on women characters and the issue that concern them. We start with Barbara and her career, and before long her family life – which involves an impotent husband who takes a keen interest in a mysterious neighbour, and a child who has recovered from serious illness – becomes significant. Fidelis, who has had a double mastectomy, is a fascinating and complex character, who finds herself strangely attracted to, and envious of, young Sophie. Sophie herself is an intriguing character, a biker with an interest in psychology. And finally there is Buffy, the wife of the entrepreneur, who has gone missing in rather odd circumstances.
All these ingredients are mixed with subtle skill. I guessed some elements of the plot, but by no means all of it, despite the fact that the clues are fairly supplied, and for me, the suspense became truly gripping in the latter part of the story, as I began to realise the nature of the puzzle. An unusual and satisfying book, which unquestionably deserves to be better known.