Half of this book is brilliant. The other half? Not so. The Undiscovered Deaths… is one of those carefully constructed novels that’s concocted of complicated layers. A mystery disguises a secret that in turn conceals a hidden truth – usually a perfect premise for a psychological thriller. Problem is, the initially intriguing aspects are overwhelmed by a less-than-gripping cold case investigation which dominates two-thirds of the story.
We’re enticed in by a brilliant beginning but are disappointingly dragged off on an unrelated tangent, chasing what might be a suspicious disappearance from decades ago. Grace herself is a cracking character: one of society’s outsiders who scratches a living as a forensic cleaner. It’s a long way from CSI and there’s nothing glamorous about her profession – she makes the scene of death presentable again after the body is gone. Most of her ‘clients’ are older folk who’ve died at home and lain undiscovered for ages. Grace is more affected by their sad lives and lonely endings than by the inevitable gooey bodily fluids they’ve left behind.
She has a wonderfully weird way of processing the pain she’s witnessed and builds intricate models of the scenes she’s cleaned, miniature panoramas that encapsulate the isolation of an unseen demise. There’s an unflinching honesty to Grace’s fragmenting personality and a gritted-teeth determination to her actions. Author CS Robertson lightens the mood with precision-targeted gallows humour that illuminates Grace’s situation while casting long shadows on modern society.
That’s all excellent, then, but it’s not enough to sustain a full-length novel. Hence the expedition to [yawn…] The two threads have been uncomfortably grafted together, and although I was utterly engaged by the opening chapters I found it hard to maintain that level of interest during the humdrum, ham-fisted investigation which follows. I can’t help feeling that Grace would’ve been better served by a shorter, more focused novella.
That hackneyed ‘summer of love goes horribly wrong’ theme doesn’t mesh well with the more sophisticated and subtle exploration of individual neurosis and societal decay. The result was a book which I half-adored but could barely summon the energy to plod through to the final payoff.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill by CS Robertson is available at Amazon
Short sharp stabs with a complicated contract killer