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).