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!