The Vanishing Act by Jen Shieff
Like all good crime novels, Jen Shieff’s The Vanishing Act starts with a body – that of local GP George Abercrombie, who is found dead at the top of Mt Eden. Dr Abercrombie, we soon discover, is a truly odious man, and almost everyone who knows him has a potential motive for his murder.
As the investigation kicks off, we’re introduced to a rich cast of characters, all with their own secrets to hide. At the centre of the novel is Rosemary Cawley, a glamorous English university lecturer whose well-to-do family shipped her out to New Zealand when they discovered she was – horror of horrors – a lesbian.
The Vanishing Act takes place in the mid-to-late 1960s, and the social mores of that time inform much of the action. Shieff does a brilliant job of bringing to life this version of Auckland, at once thrillingly familiar and shockingly different. She has obviously done extensive research, but she doesn’t fall into the trap of cramming her novel with every piece of historical detail possible, just for the sake of it (or to justify long hours spent in the library). Instead, every description given is in service of the plot and the character development.
In many ways, Shieff’s writing style is classic noir: pacy and moody. But she doesn’t resort to any of the clichés of that genre, especially when it comes to her numerous female characters. There are men here, yes, but this novel is really about women, and these women are driven by love, lust, jealousy, greed, rage, anger and fear – in other words, they are fully formed human beings. No one-dimensional damsels in distress or tough broads here. (Even the fact that the murder victim is male feels revolutionary in a genre that so often fetishises violence against women.)
The Vanishing Act is a standalone sequel to 2015’s The Gentlemen’s Club. I haven’t read the earlier book, but I certainly intend to now, along with anything else Shieff puts out. This is the kind of crime fiction we need more of – suspenseful, gripping and blessedly free of that genre’s tired, hyper-masculine tropes.
Reviewed by India Lopez
Mary Egan Publishing, RRP $30