Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Dead Woman Walking by Jessica Mann: review

Jessica Mann is a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer whose primary reputation is as a crime novelist. Amongst other things, she's written a study of the "Crime Queens" of the Golden Age, Deadlier than the Male. She's also written outside the genre, and her latest novel, Dead Woman Walking is a reminder of the breadth of her interests.

It's also a peculiarly fascinating book because she's done something unusual and appealing. Just as Agatha Christie, having started her career with A Mysterious Affair at Styles, took Poirot and Hastings back to Styles Court in her excellent and under-estimated novel Curtain, so here Jessica Mann has delved back into her own literary past.

As she explains in a note at the end of the book, the woman who narrates part of the story, Isabel, appearead in her very first novel, A Charitable End. Another major character, the memorably evoked Fidelis Berlin, appeared in an excellent mystery, A Private Inquiry, as well as in two subsequent books which I haven't read as yet. And Jessica is kind enough to say in the note that a suggestion from me inspired her to write a "sort of sequel" to her debut novel, forty years on. Very gratifying from my perspective (especially as she is a writer whose books I enjoyed long before I ever met her), and suffice to say that she's done something unusual and distinctive with that initial idea. The result is a book to savour.

This is a relatively short novel (published by The Cornovia Press, based in Yorkshire) and there are plenty of switches of scenes, as well as (mainly in the early part of the book) switches of period. So we begin with a preamble set in Nazi Germany, move forward to Scotland in 1964, then go to the present day, and so on. The catalyst for the story is the discovery of the body of a woman who disappeared half a century ago, but there is also a dramatic mix of ingredients, ranging from Fidelis' quest for the truth about her own identity to an ingenious method of murder, the abduction of children, and Satanic rituals.

There is a very striking climax, but this is also a novel of ideas, about feminism, family and literature. In addition, I suspect that there may be a number of semi-autobiographical elements. As you would expect with Jessica Mann, it's a very well-written as well as a poignant book. I'm delighted to have read it, and to be able to confirm that after a slight delay in publication date, it's now available generally..


Jessica Mann said...

I'm basking in the glow of delight at these kind words, Martin (and as it happens today, in brilliant Cornish sunshine). Such a perceptive and generous review is incredibly welcome. Thank you! Publication tomorrow..........

Martin Edwards said...

My pleasure, Jessica, and the very best of luck with it. One of these days I may just quiz you about those autobiographical elements!!