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The Final Call by Jen Shieff

Jen Shieff’s The Final Call is the sequel to The Gentlemen’s Club and The Vanishing Act, both finalists in the Ngaio Marsh Awards. I had read neither but thoroughly enjoyed The Final Call as a standalone historic crime story.

It is 1979, a decade has passed since The Vanishing Act. Rita Saunders is still the boss at the Gentlemen’s Club in Remuera, a reimagened version of Flora Mackenzies’ infamous high class brothel in St Mary’s Bay. She runs a comfortable home for her girls although there is a constant threat of police harassment and criminal charges.

The main character, Carmel O’Sullivan, is at a turning point in her life. She enjoys her lesbian relationship with Rita but, approaching forty and having earnt a considerable amount of money as a high-end prostitute, she is ready to move away from prostitution to start a respectable business. Istvan Ziegler, the Hungarian immigrant and handyman at the Gentleman’s Club is in love with Carmel and hopes her new life will include him, both in bed as as a business partner. But can Carmel be persuaded to leave Rita?

Then suddenly Carmel’s life changes dramatically. Her sister Tess, who also worked at the Gentlemen’s Club, goes out on a call with a handsome new client and is found the following morning savagely murdered, evidently the victim of a hate crime. Shortly afterwards her youngest sister Maxine dies in a tragic plane crash. Carmel feels she is doomed to be next.

Out of five siblings, brought up as Catholics, she is now the only surviving sister. Felix, one of her brothers, a pompous pious priest, disapproves strongly of prostitution and doesn’t hold back from moralising. Jonathon, a respected barrister, is prone to sudden angry outbursts. Her abusive ex husband and mentally unstable nephew are also in the picture. An unexpected windfall adds a further complication to the family dynamics. As the crime story unfolds family secrets are gradually uncovered.

Jen Shieff’s careful research into this period of Auckland’s history, including the fashions, the food and the businesses, lends an air of authenticity to her novel.

In her well constructed crime story there are plenty of twists and turns before the shocking and unexpected finale. But it is her ability at character creation which adds real depth to this story. For Carmel, the protaganist, I felt a deep sympathy as she navigated her way through thorny family relationships and admired her for carrying on and firming up plans for her business while fearing for her life.

Jen Shieff has also brought her other characters vividly to life including Inspector Allan Maynard, a man of integrity with liberal views who sees prostitution as an essential service and is determined to find the perpetrator of this horrific crime. He provides a good counterpoint to those whose conservative religious beliefs made them see prostitution, lesbianism and homosexuality as sinful. With such disparate points of view in the community, which Jen Shieff articulates so well in this novel, there was bound to be a difficult journey ahead. It was not until 2003 that prostitution was fully decriminalized.

I found it a gripping but also a thought provoking read.

Review: Lyn Potter

Mary Egan Publishers


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