A Kind of Healthy Grave

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The unusual premise for Jessica Mann’s most recent novel is a mystery which lies buried in the past, resurfacing suddenly to threaten the security of those who had hoped that time would eradicate its traces. The central figure in this plot is the artist known as Rex, a satirist whose risque works scandalized London in the 1920’s. Six decades after his apparent death by fire, a series of seemingly unrelated events once again focus attention on Rex--and lead to murder.

The characters whose lives will become caught up in the mystery include actress Zoe Meredith and her husband, Allan Cory, who is writing a book about Rex; Basil Hutber, the elderly head of a small private school in the village of Carmell; his sister, Dame Viola Hutber, a popular writer and the founder of a reactionary women’s group; and Tamara Hoyland, an archaeologist and investigator who is researching Dame Viola’s group for her sometime employer, the mysterious T.G.H. Black. Mann traces the course of each of their lives as they become entwined in the mystery surrounding Rex.

Mann writes with considerable wit and style, and her story is an intriguing one, but she is well into the book before any sense of the plot begins to take shape--fact which considerably dissipates both the story’s suspense and the reader’s interest. The pace is reestablished once the pieces of the puzzle begin to reveal the final picture, but the conclusion--for mystifyingly vague reasons, the murderer’s identity is never made public--is hardly satisfying.

Among the book’s strengths are its portrayal of the evil that sometimes lurks beneath the placid surface of life in a small village and its depiction of Dame Viola’s women’s group, the Watchwomen, a loosely knit band of antifeminists whose values reflect the current appeal of political and social conservatism. Jessica Mann is at her best when exploring the emotional facets of her characters’ lives and describing their social context; she is less successful in handling the set-up and playing out of the mystery on which the novel centers.