Sarah Dunant, “Birth Marks”

I wonder why so many writers choose to begin with murder mysteries. Could it be that so many of us read them so faithfully? Another possibility is that there are simply so many murder mysteries published that the odds of selling one to a publisher aren’t bad. Or it may be that the strict form offers writers training wheels. And them maybe I’m looking at the whole question backwards and the issue is really why so many terrific writers abandon writing mysteries and move on to something more ambitious. Even Julian Barnes wrote four mysteries (as Dan Kavanagh) in the 1980s, while also writing novels like Metroland and Flaubert’s Parrot.

Maybe I am reading into Birth Marks, Sarah Dunant’s first Hannah Wolfe mystery of three. But it seemed to be an exploration of a genre that wouldn’t hold this writer for very long. Hannah Wolfe herself is not an especially original creation, though a very appealing one. A wisecracking sometime employee in a small-time security firm, she is obviously both too posh and too well-educated for her job. (In Birth Marks she turns out to speak perfect French, for instance.) Some ill-defined restlessness and man trouble are Dunant’s only explanation for what otherwise seems like Hannah’s slumming.

That’s a minor quibble, though. Birth Marks is completely enjoyable. The plot concerns a young woman who has vanished, and Hannah pretty expeditously finds out that Carolyn has gotten herself mixed up with a French industrialist for nefarious reasons. I thought I had this figured out and about two-thirds of the way through the book, my guess was revealed to be correct…. but! There was more! Further layers of deception! No one, it turns out, has any principles, possibly including the victim Carolyn. As Hannah puts it: “Funny. When you think about it the only really glamorous thing about Marlowe is Chandler’s style. Strip that away and what have you got but sleaze?” No wonder Dunant bailed after three mysteries!



About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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6 Responses to Sarah Dunant, “Birth Marks”

  1. Annie says:

    I’ve been trying to get hold of this for some time. The library system says it has a copy, but doesn’t seem to be able to find it. Dan Kavanagh, on the other hand, it refuses to acknowledge at all! Have you read those?

  2. carolwallace says:

    I have read the Dan Kavanaghs and they are really more curiosities than anything else. Funny, quite bleak, a little bit punk. Duffy is deeply phobic, a neat freak who has to keep his watch in a plastic box because the ticking drives him mad. If I remember correctly, Barnes later said he’d made a tactical error by giving Duffy those characteristics because there were so many things Duffy just couldn’t do, like ride the Tube or shake people’s hands (now I’m making stuff up, but you get the point).

    That being said, if you see them at a used-book sale for 15P they are worth picking up! (I might even go to 75P myself…)

  3. Chelsea says:

    I’ve read Dunant’s The Birth of Venus and have to say that I absolutely ADORED it. This one doesn’t sound quite as up my alley, but who knows. It may be worth a go on the strength of the other alone. Thanks for the great review!

    • carolwallace says:

      Actually, Chelsea, you might be better off with Dunant’s other two Italian novels, “Sacred Hearts” and “In the Company of the Courtesan,” if you haven’t read them. Same richness on every level. But sometimes I just need my little dose of suspense….

  4. Pingback: Sarah Dunant, “Under My Skin” « Book Group of One

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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