Both sophisticated and satisfying

Jessie Neilson by The Vanishing Act, by Jen Shieff. Published by Mary Egan Publishing.

The Vanishing Act, by former schoolteacher and governmental analyst Jen Shieff, is a highly-assured crime novel, with a tight and complicated plot that holds on to all the enigmas of character and motivation until the very end.

It follows on from her first novel The Gentlemen’s Club, which in 2016 was a finalist in the Ngaio Marsh Awards. With a full cast of 1960s vamps and villains out to cause havoc, Shieff’s work is gripping.

It is 1967 in Mount Eden, Auckland. Upper-class Brit Rosemary Cawley has been banished from her homeland in deepest shame. She is driven by her pursed-lipped, expensively-attired and snooping parents in their silver Rolls Royce to the dock, whereupon she is deposited without grace on to a ship destined for "the colonies".

Rosemary has no interest in conformity nor reputation, and she has become embroiled in scandal after an affair with a well-bred call-girl. In addition, family members have come across her lesbian love poetry which she was preparing for publication. This is clearly, exasperatingly beyond the pale, and with her behaviour showing no sign of abating she is sent to New Zealand, with monthly payments to keep her away and shut her up.

Rosemary, however, has enough self-respect and humour to withstand the humiliation, despite feeling that through this difficult time her muse has "up and left in a puff of the proverbial". With her education and financial backing she is quickly signed up for a lecturing position in Auckland’s new fine arts department of Elam.

Here she meets the lovely Judith, who is also employed in teaching art history. The latter has a firm partner in the Hungarian Istvan Ziegler, who is known for his continental ways. He is troubled by the women’s growing closeness, yet this is the least of his worries when he stumbles upon the decomposing body of local charmer (or lecher, depending on one’s point of view), Dr George Abercrombie on the slopes of Mount Eden while out walking his dogs.

The local community is all too small, and the art department, the university at large, the two local competing middle-class brothels and the doctor’s clinic prove frequent meeting points for the cast of vivacious characters, nemeses and staunch friends alike. Some of these are glamorous, lipstick-and-gown-adorned lesbians living some kind of "outcast life in the shadows", while others are seemingly upstanding professionals: fathers, husbands and wives. As Inspector Allan Maynard investigates Abercrombie’s death, deemed a homicide, he finds himself up to his neck in contradictory accounts and flighty characters.

The plot quickly intensifies, and very soon it escalates until the characters sidle through the streets looking over their shoulders with mistrust and fear. No longer is it simply a murder case, as it becomes apparent  trickery and connivance operate throughout this ostensibly privileged and morally upright community. Such is the mockery  appearances make, and Shieff portrays a society riven by hypocrisy in a complex novel which is wholly involving, sophisticated, and immensely satisfying.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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