The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth
I’ve been a fan of mysteries ever since my father introduced me to Spenser for Hire and my brother insisted I “read Travis McGee if I want to call myself a real Floridian.” Over the years I’ve binged on Elizabeth Peters and happily discovered that late night movies can lead to the written works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I found Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc series at Powell’s a few years ago and have been fairly obsessed with it ever since, but I haven’t found any new mystery writers lately that blew my mind. That is until Serpent’s Tail sent along a copy of Cathi Unsworth’s debut novel, The Not Knowing.
Knowing is set in 1990s London and it’s noir -- it’s this new genre called “female noir” -- and what a story! Unsworth somehow manages to defy the rules by not having her protagonist solve the crime and revealing fairly early on just who the criminal is, but she has still written such a riveting character portrait that nobody cares whether rules are being broken or not. You just want to keep reading to find out what happens to everybody -- good, bad, and stupid -- and why in the hell all of this has happened in the first place. Mostly, you just want to read the story and in the end that is what makes Unsworth’s tale rise above a lot of others in her field. She keeps you with the story, and the mystery is just icing on the cake.
Diana Kemp is a journalist for Lux, a new magazine formed as an “alternative culture bible” by Kemp, her friend and fellow journalist Barry Hudson, and entrepreneur Neil Bambridge. They are up-and-comers in the print journal business and after two years it is looking like Lux is going to break into the big leagues. Diana is planning to attend a crime writers festival for the next issue, her dream assignment, and Barry is hoping to interview an old friend who has just become the latest hot young movie director. Diana enjoys the finer aspects of the “Crimewave” conference and even gets the chance to interview a writer whose novel, Weirdo, deeply impressed her. Things don’t go so well with author Simon Everill at first, but Diana thinks she might have made an impression and could still salvage a good article out of it. The plot takes a gruesome turn and the director friend is found murdered in a truly savage and personal manner. Barry was unable to get that interview with Joe Jackson before he died, but surprisingly Neil was, and now the police would like to hear just what Jackson had to say. Neil sees the chance to make headline news by breaking the interview first in Lux, and Diana and Barry are equally appalled and sickened at the idea. Diana finds herself eating and drinking across London in an effort to cope with all the horror around her and in due time makes a dreadful personal mistake with Simon Everill.
A lot of stuff happens in The Not Knowing leading up to an excellent noir-style climax that sends both the reader and poor, shocked Diana reeling. As a protagonist she is shamelessly confused and overwhelmed -- she really only ever wanted to write about crime, not be so intimately involved in one. There is no late night analysis of the facts here or interviewing of witnesses. The reader is able to peek inside the head of the killer so we know what is going on, but Diana has no idea of the long-held plots and plans swirling around her. She doesn’t understand why Neil is hiding information from the police (not to mention herself and Barry), and she harbors a secret of her own concerning the dead man. Mostly though, Diana is desperately struggling to cope with these events. She is a sympathetic character for the reader and the fact that she manages to still be smart and functional (and not fall into all that idiotic helpless woman crap that I despise) throughout the story is a credit to Unsworth’s determination.
Ultimately though, it is not a matter of who but why, and the book’s final scenes are intense. You keep thinking that things will stop, that Diana will somehow morph into Wonder Woman (or maybe Lara Croft) and suddenly start pulling guns out of her bag, but that would be out of character and Unsworth is completely faithful to her characters. Diana will figure it out only because she must; it’s not her job to be the girl detective and it’s not her nature either. She is the one who is stuck in this crime and as such she is an unwilling participant.
The Not Knowing is Unsworth’s debut novel but it reads like the work of a seasoned veteran. Clearly she has found her niche with a kind of hardboiled slice of London life that is both gripping and vaguely disturbing. I thought she did an outstanding job with this book, and it shows why Serpent’s Tail is the kind of publisher whose stories pack a lot of punch. And for mystery lovers everywhere, take note of Cathi Unsworth’s name. I have a feeling she’s going to be around for quite a long time.
The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth