Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As time has gone by, the PI novel has become more and more diverse. And that makes sense, as more different kinds of people get into that business, both in fiction and in real life. Modern fictional PIs are more varied than ever, and so are the stories about them. Let’s take a look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Sarah Dunant’s Birth Marks, the first in her Hannah Wolfe series.
Wolfe is a former employee of a security/investigation firm owned by her mentor, Frank Comfort (yes, that’s his real name), who’s an ex-copper. When she finds that her financial situation isn’t working out the way she’d hoped, she asks Frank for freelance work. And the case he offers her is a strange one.
Augusta Patrick is a former dancer who served as a surrogate mother and mentor for Carolyn Hamilton, a talented dancer in her own right. Carolyn did well, and they had hopes that she could have a great career. After she left to pursue that career, Carolyn kept in regular touch with her mentor, mostly by postcard. But Miss Patrick hasn’t heard from Carolyn in a long time and is worried about her. Wolfe takes the case and starts trying to trace the young woman’s whereabouts.
Then, the body of a young woman who turns out to be Carolyn is pulled from the Thames. At first, Wolfe thinks the job is over. And Miss Patrick doesn’t seem to want more information. It looks like a rather clear-cut case, too. Carolyn was eight months pregnant when she died, and it wouldn’t be out of the question for a young, pregnant woman with nowhere to turn to take her own life.
But Wolfe doesn’t think it’s as simple as that. And it turns out not to be. An unknown client who works only through a legal representative hires Wolfe to look into the circumstances of Carolyn’s death. So, she starts to investigate more deeply.
One of the most important questions is, of course, who is the father of the baby? To find out, Wolfe traces Carolyn’s last year of life. The trail leads through several dance groups, and, ultimately, to the top of Paris’ ‘A-list.’ Slowly, Wolfe finds out the truth about the father of the baby. But that doesn’t explain how and why Carolyn died.
The closer she gets to the truth, the more Wolfe learns that almost no-one is being honest with her. If she’s going to find out what really happened to Carolyn, and be able to answer to her client, Wolfe is going to have to peel back several layers of dishonesty. She’s also going to have to keep herself out of danger.
This is, as I say, a PI novel. Readers follow along as Wolfe talks to people, gets her hands on information (some of it confidential) and otherwise follows up leads. She doesn’t have the force of he law behind her, so she’s had to become skilled at getting people to talk to her. The novel was published in 1991, before the Internet was a real factor in detection, and before most people had mobile telephones. So, readers get the chance to see how PI work was done before the age of apps, Google, and social media.
One important element in the novel is the network of family relationships. There’s Carolyn’s relationship with her own biological parents and with Miss Patrick. There’s Wolfe’s own relationship with her family, especially her sister, Kate. There are other family dynamics explored, too. As she looks into this case, Wolfe faces her own torn feelings about being a mother at some point.
This isn’t a ‘happy ending’ sort of novel, where all is put right again in the end. Knowing the truth about Carolyn doesn’t make anyone happy about it all, and few of the characters were really content, anyway. In that sense, there’s just a hint of noir.
And yet, it’s not a completely bleak story. There is wit woven in, too. For instance, here’s Wolfe’s reaction when Frank offers her the case:
‘‘So, do you want it?’ [Frank]
Not really. Missing girls seldom turn up somewhere their mothers want them to be. But if I didn’t want it, the gas and electricity board did. And I could hear the sound of British Telecom cheering on from the sidelines.’
The wit serves to lighten what is a very sad story. Without getting too close to spoilers, I can say that no-one really wins, if you want to put it that way, in the end.
The story is told from Wolfe’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers get to know her character. She’s smart and resourceful – no ‘helpless female’ here. She’s determined to make her own way. But at the same time, she has her own vulnerabilities, as we all do.
Readers who dislike a lot of violence will be pleased to know that there’s very little of it here, and none of it brutal. There is explicit language, although it doesn’t pop up in every conversation. In that sense, and in terms of the topics explored, this is grittier than a cosy novel. At the same time, it’s not ‘hardboiled.’
Birth Marks is the story of a young woman who started out wanting to be a dancer and ended up in a quite different place. It explores several questions of family, of parenting, and of what you can get if you just have enough money. And it introduces a contemporary London PI who’s got brains and good instincts, even as she’s trying to sort out her own direction. But what’s your view? Have you read Birth Marks? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 26 March/Tuesday, 27 March – Koreatown Blues – Mark Rogers
Monday, 2 April/Tuesday, 3 April – The Salaryman’s Wife – Sujata Massey
Monday, 9 April/Tuesday, 10 April – The Ghosts of Belfast – Stuart Neville