A Great Book Recommendation

This recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

The late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke was a real friend to crime fiction and to crime fiction readers and writers. As a way of remembering her, and of building a collection of great book recommendations, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan had an excellent idea. A group of book bloggers would contribute reviews of fine crime novels that they would recommend to Maxine. This is my contribution.

Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy

This novel begins as New South Wales journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett gets a new assignment. He’s to cover the story of Agnes Moore, a visitor from England, who disappeared during a severe storm. Her daughter, Ruby, travels to Australia to make an appeal for any information, and Fawcett’s there to cover that appeal. At first, he doesn’t pay much close attention, although he does his job professionally. But his interest is piqued when he learns the reason that the missing woman came to New South Wales.

It seems that Agnes came to Australia to meet her sister for the very first time. That’s an unusual story, and it’s got a solid human-interest ‘hook.’ So, Fawcett decides to follow it up. Soon after he starts to write about the case, he begins to receive letters from Agnes’ sister, Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney.

Snow’s in prison for a crime that becomes clear as the story goes on. But she’s been following the case, and decides to put Fawcett right about a lot of details he’s gotten wrong. Thus begins a series of letters between the two; and through those letters, we learn about both Snow and Agnes’ history.

The two sisters were born several years apart, and have led starkly different lives. Agnes was born in the UK during World War II, and ended up in an orphanage. After the war, she moved to Australia and was placed in care there. Later, she returned to the UK. Fawcett does some digging and learns why Agnes was in care, and how she lost touch with her parents.

He also learns that they moved to Australia, where they had Snow. As Snow’s letters continue, we learn about her life. As she tells the story, she was raised by a troubled mother and a father who couldn’t cope. As soon as she could, she left. Then, she trained as a nurse, and some of her letters tell the story of that experience.

Her attempt to work with severely mentally troubled patients didn’t go very well, and Snow puts that down to the concept that these people should be moved out into the community as much as possible. She believes that this plan was bound to fail. Still, she continued in nursing, met her partner, Mark, and moved to Sydney.

There, she and Mark opened Delaney House, a foster home for severely disabled children. By this time, Mark had developed a gambling problem, so it mostly fell to Snow to support the family. With this as the background, we slowly learn what happened to Snow, and how she ended up in prison. We also learn what really happened to Agnes.

There are several things I think Maxine would have really liked about this story. For one thing, it addresses some difficult and controversial issues about the social care system. Many of the questions the novel raises don’t have easy answers, and I think Maxine would have appreciated that Overington doesn’t offer pat solutions. She always liked books that discuss complex issues in ways that do justice to that complexity. Maxine would probably also have appreciated that Overington ‘did the homework’ for this story. She enjoyed books that have a sense of authenticity; she liked to keep her disbelief close by.

Another aspect of the book that Maxine would probably have liked is the slow reveal of the truth. Little by little, we get to know the main characters and their motivations, and we learn that all may not be as it seems. Those layers of character add depth to the story, and I think Maxine would have been glad that Overington didn’t create ‘cardboard’ characters. She preferred more human characters, with all of the accompanying ‘messiness.’ Some of the characters are not at all sympathetic, but that never put Maxine off if the characters were interesting and complex. We may not end up liking Snow, for instance, but it’s hard to deny some of the points that she makes. And we get some interesting insight into why she does the things she does.

Maxine also liked books with a solid sense of place and atmosphere. Sisters of Mercy is clearly set in New South Wales. Both in terms of geography and in terms of culture and even some language use, Overington makes it clear that this is an Australian story.

The tension in the novel is as much psychological as it is anything else. That’s especially apparent as we learn that some characters might not be what they seem at first. Snow, for instance, tells her story in what seems a straightforward way. But how reliable a narrator is she? I think Maxine would have liked that focus on the psychological, rather than the gory details of a crime. Some parts of the novel are very difficult to read, even harrowing. But there isn’t gratuitous violence, and I think Maxine would have been glad of that. She was never much of a one for a high ‘body count’ or a lot of blood.

Sisters of Mercy is the story of two very different sisters, and two very different lives. It takes a hard, sometimes painful, look at some difficult issues, and features narrators who are complex and layered. And it takes place in a distinctly Australian setting. I think Maxine would have liked those elements; I only wish she could have read this.