This review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013.
I mentioned to my local librarian that I was doing the AWW Challenge this year, and was on the look-out for authors and titles to try that were new to me.
"What sort of books do you like?" she asked musingly.
"Oh, crime ..." I said. "Fantasy, science fiction, YA, literary fiction, historical fiction. Travel writing, humour, good non-fiction. Pretty much anything except straight romance, really."
The librarian immediately started recommending authors at a furious pace - very knowledgeable people, librarians! - and one I picked up from her list was Melbourne writer Carolyn Morwood, author of (I think) 5 mystery novels published between 1998 and 2012, comprising three different female lead characters (two of them are in two books apiece). I decided to start with her first book - 1998's The Blessing File, mostly because I was intrigued and charmed by the idea of an antiquarian bookseller as the main detective-protagonist.
The Blessing File is the story of Lyn Blessing, antiquarian bookseller in a shopfront in the heart of Melbourne's laneway culture, and the mysterious and frightening events that begin to entangle her, kicked off by the weekly presence in her shop of a girl who stays for a few moments, looks at a book, then leaves without saying a word. She comes at the same time every Friday, and Lyn finds her puzzling and strange; but, to employ a back-of-book-blurb-style sentence, her curiosity draws her into deeper waters than she could have ever imagined.
The plot is reasonably engrossing without being stunning, with a satisfying enough twist to keep me happy, but what elevates this book beyond "nice enough read" to "actually really good" is two things - the character of Lyn herself, who Morwood draws as a complex, interesting person, and the deep sense of Melbourne as a place and of the moment in time in which the book is set (the early 1990s). It's obvious that Morwood, like me, is a lanewayphile; her loving evocation of what I've often called "Melbourne Below" (why yes, that *is* a Neil Gaiman reference) is beautifully realised and very attractive.
Reading books set in my own city isn't a new thing for me, but I think this may be one of the first I've read that's set not just in my place, but my time. I have vivid memories of the early 90s in Melbourne - the changing landscape of the city as Southbank was constructed, the push to build more city residential spaces, the beginning of the Docklands behemoth. I remember that old-world, musty feel that a lot of the smaller laneways and side streets used to have. I remember the feeling of stepping out of the world that you got when entering some of those longtime shops, selling fabric, books, tea, shoes, tailor-made coats.
I think this is the reason I cottoned on to this book so much. Morwood has a real gift for effective characterisation and for bringing a place in time to life, and I related to Lyn and her world so quickly, recognised it so viscerally, that it was easy to be charitable about the telegraphing and stumbles in the plot itself (of which there are a few). I admit I was disappointed to find that this appears to be the only Lyn Blessing book out (happy to be corrected if I'm wrong), but I'll definitely give Morwood's other series a try based on this one.
So, with Behind the Night Bazaar and The Blessing File both being definite ticks for me, the library is scoring well - 2 from 2 so far...