Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sleuthing Required: Is Jessica Mann 'The Mystery Writer'?

Mann, Jessica. The Mystery Writer. London: Allison & Busby, 2007 (2006).

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I struggled with this book. Jessica Mann is a good writer with a clear command of the English language, and--although a little overly detailed at times--her stories and dialogues are told in a modernised and everyday style far easier to read than the texts I slog through every day in the course of my work. Yet where Mann is readable, I found the format of her book difficult to navigate.

The Mystery Writer begins in 1940 (a setting clearly and helpfully delineated by a date affixed to the top of the page) where it follows the adventures of two small boys, one wealthy and one from the lower classes, who are able to leave Britain for new and safer lives in North America. When the boat is attacked and the occupants forced into lifeboats, only one of these lads survives (and, of course, any avid reader of mysteries will immediately know which finds that extra breath of life). Eleven years later, in the second chapter, that same young man (now, of course, older) returns to his childhood home an artist and an adventurer (who immediately captures the interest of two young sisters).

From this point, the story skips ahead to modern times, drops the helpful dates from chapter headers, and becomes a bit blurry. Mann seems to alternate between narrators, telling the story, at times, as herself (the omniscient narrator of The Mystery Writer) and at times as her mystery-writer character within the novel. The timeline of flashbacks is not always clearly delineated, and although the final chapter neatly draws together the many complex strands of her plot, the conclusion is too easy to anticipate and the path to that end very badly obscured by the vague temporal definitions and multiple narrators. However, a blurb on the back of the book informs me that this is her eighteenth novel, so I shall be quite interested to read another book by Ms. Mann in the future. The historical research and depiction of life in war-torn Britain have been very neatly done, however, so perhaps my next selection will be one of Ms. Mann's nonfiction books, which might prove a tremendous treat.

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