Women in control

Published May 6, 2021, 3:29 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Here are four fine novels with women in the lead role. One is a fine example of contemporary crime fiction, and one is a double helix narrative set in today’s London and the late 18th century. The third novel deals with dissociative identity disorder, while the fourth is a stirring account of forbidden love and friendship between two women in the 17th century.

‘The Fine Art of Invisible Detection’ by Robert Goddard

Recipient of the Diamond Dagger three years ago, an award that recognizes lifetime achievement in Crime Writing by the Crime Writers Association, which Robert Goddard was certainly deserving of for his skillful cross-plotting, this latest of his is a fine example of that special gift. It’s the kind of murder mystery that has us aching to just read one more chapter; perpetually at the end of our wits, wanting to know what happens next. And this one takes us from Tokyo to London, to Cornwall and Cambridge, and then to Iceland. And at the center of all this is a middle aged Japanese widow, who merely works as a secretary for a Tokyo private detective.

Umiko Wada, is called upon by her boss to impersonate a Japanese woman who there’s more to the suicide of her controversial father, while he was visiting England over 40 years ago. Flying to London, she’s informed that her boss has died under suspicious circumstances. A flashback narrative about English activist friends in the ‘70s, the sarin gas subway attack of Tokyo, and paternity issues are just some of the elements thrown into the mix as Goddard unravels the mystery and keeps us glued to his pages. Some convenient circumstances do occur, but by and large, we are in Goddard’s masterful hands and I know I willingly surrendered. Great read.

‘The Lost Apothecary’ by Sarah Penner

In the well established tradition of a double helix narrative that takes place over two distinct time periods comes the latest from Sarah Penner. One narrative takes place in London in the late 18th century, where Nella takes after her mother as an apothecary. The big difference is that Nella’s clientele are all women, and beyond the palliatives and homeopathic remedies she mixes, she also deals in poisons. The second narrative has to do with an American woman named Caroline who travels alone to London on her 10th wedding anniversary because she just found out her husband had been cheating on her. A history buff, Caroline sees the London trip as a way to have some alone time and decide what she’ll do with her life.

It’s never lost on us how women in the 18th century were often maltreated, taken for granted, and how poisoning their husbands seemed like an ideal solution. The service Nella provided is a real but problematic one and she herself is often conflicted about the nature of her profession. When mudlarking on the Thames, Caroline retrieves a vial that is subsequently identified as coming from Nella’s apothecary. What ensues is an entertaining story about vengeance, resetting your life, and how women can touch, help and save each other across Time. Well plotted, easy read.

‘The Eighth Girl’ by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung

Maxine Mei-Fung Chung is a practicing psychotherapist and clinical supervisor. And it may be of interest to know that this first novel of hers has already been optioned by Jason Bateman & Michael Costigan for Netflix. Dealing as it does with dissociative identiy disorder (DID, or what used to be referred to as multiple personality disorder), one can imagine what sort of casting coup this would be for some young actress seeking to make her name, having to convincingly portray a host of personalities trapped in one body—think of James McAvoy in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split.”

Alexa Wu is our main character, and we’re introduced to Ella, who she refers to as her best friend, and to her stepmother Anna. Chapters are, in terms of narrative voice, divided between Alexa and her therapist, Daniel. Set in the seedy parts of London, the action revolves around Ella working in a sordid gentleman’s club whose owner is involved with human trafficking and pedophilia. At one point, Alexa, who’s an assistant to a renowned photographer, decides to join forces with Ella to expose the going one’s at the Electra Club. When Ella’s life is endangered, it’s left to Alexa, and her different personalities to come into the picture and save Ella. Will she—or they?—manage?

‘A Net for Small Fishes’ by Lucy Jago

Frances Howard and Anne Turner are notorious women from the Jacobean era of early 17th century England. One was a titled woman and the other a commoner/tradeswoman. Turner was executed by hanging, charged as a conspirator in the poisoning and death of Sir Thomas Overbury. Lady Howard was first married to the Earl of Essex, but became infamous for being a Roman Catholic granted an annulment, and then marrying Sir Robert Carr, the then-King’s “favorite.” History has been unkind to the two, castigating them as willful women who failed to be compliant to their husbands, and as women who sought to better themselves during a time when it was more prudent to know your place and submit.

With a wonderful sense of time and place, Lucy Jago adds depth, texture, and dimension to these two women, and raises them from the very one-dimensional manner in which history treats them. The title is a quotation from another character in the drama that ensued. Tried and executed as Anne Turner’s co-conspirator, he was referring to the charges, trial, and notion of justice as the small fry being ensnared and serving as scapegoats for the “big fish” who had power, titles, and money, and would be left unscathed. This is a more than interesting read, and the pace really picks up as get to Anne’s arrest and rapid downfall, with a coda that’s quite moving.

 
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