From the vault: Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant

Birth MarksI came to Sarah Dunant’s 1991 novel Birth Marks via an interest in stories about —

Actually, I can’t disclose what drew me to Birth Marks without spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say, I’m glad I found my way to this terrific book.

Birth Marks opens with PI Hannah Wolfe having just returned from a stint in personal working security in Hong Kong, which hadn’t proved as lucrative as she’d hoped. Strapped for cash, Hannah turns to her previous employer, an ex-cop called Frank Comfort, whose name is an asset when people search the phone book for a PI. Indeed, this is how Miss Augusta Patrick finds Frank.

Despite her reservations about the suitability of the job for a woman, Miss Patrick, a former ballerina turned teacher, employs Hannah to find Carolyn Hamilton, her adoptive-daughter-cum-protégée. Miss Patrick has not heard from Carolyn in seven weeks, and none of the dance companies she worked with have heard from her in over six months.

Hannah is still pursuing leads when Carolyn’s body is dragged from the Thames. As if the loss of a talented young dancer isn’t tragic enough, Carolyn turns out to be eight months pregnant at the time of her death.

Although her client is understanding, Hannah feels guilty for not having done more to earn her advance. She tells herself, ‘…it’s just a job. Employed by someone you didn’t know to find someone you’d never met.’

But it isn’t that easy. And when a client who wishes to remain anonymous wants to employ her to look into the circumstances of Carolyn Hamilton’s death — and the alternative is providing security for a Saudi diplomat’s wife while she shops — Hannah accepts the job.

The investigation leads Hannah to France and the home of super-wealthy war hero Jules Belmont and his much younger wife, Mathilde. This stock standard crime fiction scenario is given some surprising twists in Dunant’s hands, culminating in a satisfyingly noirish tale.

Dunant name-checks Chandler and Marlowe early in the book, and there are nods to the standards of the noir tradition. Like Marlowe, Wolfe is a jaded PI who takes it upon herself to pursue justice in the face of personal risk. She likes a drink, and even the odd joint (‘It’s healthier than booze and anyway, how can you uphold the law if you don’t know what it feels like to break it?’).

But Dunant goes beneath the stereotypes to produce a novel both convincing and engaging. Hannah has family, a sense of humour, lapses in judgment. With an appealing main character, a plot that keeps you guessing and an ending worthy of the best noir fiction, Birth Marks makes for both entertaining and intelligent reading.

These days, Sarah Dunant is an internationally successful writer of historical romance set during the Renaissance, most recently Blood and Beauty, about the Borgias. She is a founding patron of the Orange Prize for women’s fiction. Birth Marks is the first of three novels featuring PI Hannah Kent, the others being Fatlands (1994), winner of the Silver Dagger, and Under My Skin (1995).


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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5 Responses to From the vault: Birth Marks by Sarah Dunant

  1. Angela – Oh, I’ve heard of this one! I’d already been keen to read it, and your excellent review reminded me that I haven’t got to it yet. I really do wish there were about 50 hours in a day for reading *sigh.* Thanks for the reminder.


    • angelasavage says:

      I couldn’t agree more about needing more time for all the books, Margot. But I liked this one so much, I plan to seek out Sarah Dunant’s other Hannah Wolfe novels.


  2. kathy d. says:

    But you must seek out Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus. It’s an outstanding novel with a mystery edge set in 15th-century Florence. It starts out with a deceased nun being found with a huge snake tattoo on her body. Who is she? What is her history? When one starts this book, one can do nothing else but read it.
    It deals with Savanarola, book-burning, anti-gay bigotry, and a young women trying to figure it all out. It’s a delicious read. Now that I think of it, I may have to reread it (sigh, no time).
    I will try to find Birth Marks.


    • angelasavage says:

      Kathy, The Birth of Venus sounds intriguing – and right up my alley in terms of the subject matter – though I liked Birth Marks so much, I reckon I’d give anything by Sarah Dunant a try. I might have guessed you’d be a fan!


  3. kathy d. says:

    I am a fan, but unfortunately although I read a different Hannah Kent book, after I read The Birth of Venus, I didn’t pursue any others by Dunant (sigh). Just too many books, too little time.


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