Sarah Dunant writes sharp and witty, complex literary mysteries. Her heroines are contemporary women who are realistic and candid. Her novels incorporate a subtext of challenging women’s traditional roles, especially regarding sexuality. These are women who take charge of their own destinies and value independence over security. Even when they become victims of violence, they struggle for control. They are vulnerable yet credible. However, the elements of character and contemporary issues are always subordinate to plot and action. The story keeps moving through unexpected twists and turns right up to the last page; there are no easy answers or unsatisfactory endings in Dunant’s novels.
Birth Marks, the first Hannah Wolfe mystery, is a novel of psychology as well as a traditional detective novel. This novel introduces Hannah Wolfe, a single security investigator in her thirties. Hannah’s assignments are generally less-than-glamorous jobs such as providing security to rich women on shopping jaunts or department store surveillance. As the novel opens, Hannah takes a missing person assignment: A young ballet dancer has fallen out of touch with her elderly teacher/guardian.
Set in London, the tale is told in the first person. Hannah comments with humor and irony on her business and the people around her as well as on her own life. She is tough and idealistic at the same time. Her commentary pays homage to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled style with nods to Agatha Christie. She speaks directly to the reader in a wryly self-conscious style.
When the eight-months’ pregnant dancer is found drowned in the Thames, an apparent suicide, the police consider the case closed. However, Hannah is both persistent and insightful. Considering her own biological clock, she understands that an eight-months’ pregnant woman is likely to be looking toward new life, not death. Intelligence and observation, the detective’s tools of the trade, contribute to her suspicion that the suicide note was not in the dancer’s apartment when Hannah was snooping there shortly before the death was discovered. Hannah digs deeper, tracks the dancer to Paris, and the tale becomes one of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. The dancer had been recruited to bear a child for a rich and childless war hero and had been leading a double life.
The ending has a twist; it is not what it first appears to be, revealing the moral ambiguity and complexity of modern life. Hannah reveals an intelligence, attitude, humor, and self-knowledge that makes the reader eager to read more about her. The book is a rich combination of character, setting, psychology, voice, and contemporary issues with solid plot and action.
The second Hannah Wolfe mystery, Fatlands, lives up to the promise of the first. Hannah has taken a job shepherding a spoiled, rich fourteen-year-old on a shopping trip in London. While the young girl is in her charge, she is blown up in a car explosion presumably meant for her father, a research scientist who has received death threats from animal rights activists. Stunned, grieving, and feeling responsible, Hannah unravels an increasingly complex and compelling plot that navigates through factory farming, international corporate politics, and the deadly potential of chemicals in people’s food.
Fatlands is a page-turner that is notable for its central scene of violence to Hannah and the aftermath of that violence. Viciously beaten by her unknown antagonist in a dark country lane, Hannah ends up in the hospital. Through her brutally honest first-person narration, the attack is seen and felt through Hannah’s own eyes. She continues her investigation, emotionally scarred but determined to find and confront her attacker. In the thrilling ending, she comes face to face with her attacker and faces not only her fear but also the motivation for violence...
(The entire section is 1627 words.)