You know, it’s not every book opens with a quote from the 1700s by a leading light in the field of anatomical pathology. But then, we’re dealing with a tiny town in the Highlands, where the morgue assistant’s a metalhead and the population are individual, to say the least.
This is the second of Brooke Magnanti’s crime books, and is one I’ve seen described as “domestic noir”. That seems about right: there’s a lot about the book that reminds me of the unblinking eye of Mike Leigh, say; domestic abuse and the difficulty of extricating oneself from the situation. It also presents the role of the escort as – shock, horror! – something a bit more nuanced than a corpse in a mystery which usually covers a detecting dude in glory.
Yeah, you won’t get that sort of dichotomous badge-worship here. Instead, what you’ll get is a multi-layered mystery: murder, sure, but also the mystery of our pasts, of our internal drives. It’s straining to get beyond the terms of who-killed-who and into the much greyer area of motivation, or necessity, or chance.
What’s good about Magnanti’s writing is that while this is ostensibly a mystery, a crime novel, she’s unafraid to add some character depth. Unlike some other genre practitioners – and hey, I like by-the-numbers, to-the-letter genre adherents as much as the next person – there’s not a sense that the characters here exist only to fulfil a narrative purpose. They’re more than that: main returning figure Harriet Hitchin is layered, not just a cut-out to be moved about the stage of the book to hit her marks.
(For the pocket-billiards enthusiasts: yes, there’s sex here. It’s just that it’s really, really not that important in the scheme of things other than to deepen the sense we get of the characters as humans. Shock, horror!)
Though the book isn’t strictly a sequel, I did find that having read Magnanti’s earlier novel The Turning Tide helped ground things a little more. There’s more backstory to characters such as Seminole Billy – a series on this dude alone, please! – and his offsider in the previous tome, so I felt a pleasing flicker of welcome when they turned up in this outing.
You Don’t Know Me shows that Magnanti’s highly enjoyable first mystery wasn’t a fluke. She’s built on that work with this tome, and continues to write engrossing crime fiction with slightly deeper-than-average-characterisation and a lack of fear when it comes to going off-piste in terms of the straight whodunnit. There’s an iconoclasm in effect when it comes to what a mystery writer is supposed to do that I find pretty appealing.
There’s the makings here of the sort of satisfying niche fiction a la Carl Hiaasen: the polished pearl that never forgets its grit. I look forward to what comes next.