Saturday 20 January 2018

Perfect crime: thrilling debut that's hard to fault

Crime: The Unseeing, Anna Mazzola, Tinder Press, hdbk, 353 pages, €19.50

True crime: Anna Mazzola's novel is based on the 1837 Edgware Road murder
True crime: Anna Mazzola's novel is based on the 1837 Edgware Road murder
The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Unseeing is the debut novel from London-based solicitor Anna Mazzola, and it's an absolute belter. A mixture of historical fiction and murder mystery, it uses an infamous real-life case as inspiration for a (mostly) fictional story that's wonderfully entertaining.

I can't remember the last time a book gave me such pure, unalloyed pleasure. Which isn't to say The Unseeing is the best thing I've ever read, or the most satisfying (pleasure and satisfaction, for readers, are quite distinct things). But my God, it's hugely enjoyable.

The real-life case Mazzola uses is that of Hannah Brown, murdered and dismembered in 1830s London, her body parts scattered around the city like a macabre game of hidden treasure. (And yes, it actually happened; you can Google "Edgware Road murder" for more information.)

James Greenacre has been convicted of her death - he denies murder but admits cutting up the body and scattering it - while his common-law wife Sarah Gale was found guilty of covering up the crime. Both now languish in hellish Newgate Prison, awaiting the hangman's rope.

Edmund Fleetwood, a talented and idealistic young lawyer, struggling financially, is asked by the Home Secretary to examine Gale's case afresh: not whether she might be innocent, but whether her plea for clemency should be granted. As he investigates, Edmund is drawn into a gauzy web of intrigue, violence, obsession, shame, betrayal, loyalty, great love, and, above all, mystery.

Why does Sarah persist in seemingly covering for the brutish Greenacre, who used to beat her and tortured her psychologically? Why does she refuse to tell the full story of what happened that night? How much of what she says is true? Does she even know what's true anymore? And what is it about this "wild, dark" woman that makes Edmund suspect he might be developing more than a professional stake in the case?

The Unseeing begins with an authentic newspaper report from the time, telling of the discovery of a human torso. It's a real punch-to-the-throat opening move, and the book doesn't let up from that point on, rattling through the narrative like a hansom carriage over cobbled London streets.

Like I said, it's not as if this is the greatest book I've ever read; but taken on its own merits, The Unseeing is basically flawless, and that's not something you can say about too many creative works.

What I mean is, there's really nothing here that you'd change. Mazzola's writing is brilliant, and just right for the genre: punchy but lyrical, evocative of the time and place without being too descriptive or - a common problem with historical fiction - ladling on all that research too thickly. As they say, she wears her learning lightly.

The pacing is inch-perfect, her plot unfolding like a spinning-wheel but never feeling rushed or artificially amped-up. And the large cast of characters: I loved them all (even while hating some of them).

Edmund, the all-round good egg, his dastardly father and annoying-but-decent wife. Sarah, the frail and damaged "fallen woman" with hidden depths. The bumptious Home Secretary and his oily assistant. Violent, unnerving Greenacre. Well-meaning Miss Pike, who tries to help Sarah; Rosina, her quick-tempered but big-hearted sister. Even the small kids - Edmund's, Sarah's and others - are vividly drawn.

There's even a rug-pulling twist towards the end, and then another, as you want/demand in a mystery. And they work: they don't strike you as forced, but rather well-earned by all we've learned to that point.

The Unseeing feels as though it's been worked and reworked, several times, honed and tightened and polished until, as I say, it essentially reaches a sort of perfection.

I can't imagine reading another new novel, and certainly not a debut, as thrilling and moving as this one for the rest of 2016.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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