Book Review: Violet Hill - Henrietta McKervey
Violet Hill - Henrietta McKervey ****
There are two detective stories in Henrietta McKervey's Violet Hill, both in and around the same locations but set 100 years apart. The obvious question you will be looking an answers to - aside from the solving of both mysteries - is what do the two stories have in common and what is the purpose in bringing them together; is it just to contrast police investigation methods and what the respective cases tell us about the society they are set in or is there some other purpose? There's also a little bit of a supernatural element brought into proceedings in Violet Hill and some connections that seem a little forced, but it's not so much to suggest that there are some mystical forces at work as much as add a layer of historical perspective onto proceedings that we wouldn't normally consider.
One of the investigations, which you might think is at least the main case in terms of precedence (and title, of course), takes place in late 1918 and early 1919 in London. Rather unusually for this time the Violet Hill Investigations agency is run by a woman, but it's perhaps not entirely unrealistic considering the huge losses of men in the Great War and the need for women to take on jobs in areas where they wouldn't traditionally be employed. A gentleman brings an unusual case to Violet that he thinks might best be handled by a woman, asking her to investigate the methods of a spiritualist, Selbarre, who is making a splash in London society and around the world. Mr Forrester, the business manager for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believes that the great writer is being duped by a fraud and wants her to expose the scam.
References to the war, still very fresh at this time, very much play a part in the case that unfolds, not least in the fact that the death of his own son in the war has led Conan Doyle to seek answers from those who claim to be in touch with the departed. Davey Dockery has also recently returned from the front and, like many of the men who have been in the trenches, he's been marked by the experience. Not as much perhaps as his brother Will who is still receiving care and treatment, wearing an iron mask to cover the wounds that have disfigured his face, but the role that both these men play in the Selbarre case is not so easy to describe, nor how at least one of them plays a part in the other case in the novel.
The other case progressed in alternate chapters takes place in London in late 2017 and early 2018. Susanna is a police detective in the Super-Recogniser Unit of the force. She has an unusual ability to be able to remember and identify faces that she has seen before, a skill that proves to be extremely useful when it comes to identifying suspects from the hours of CCTV footage that she often has to go through. Currently Susanne is looking for a man with flowers and an umbrella who has been carrying out serious assaults on women on the street, but so far he has been able to avoid being captured on camera. Just when Susanna finds a lead to identifying and apprehending the man, she is involved in a freak accident that causes her to lose her former abilities.
There's a peripheral character also in Susanna's case, a certain Phyllida Hartigan, who Susanna has sort of befriended after cautioning her over some shoplifting offenses. In Phyllida's story there are references in her past to some of the characters that have come up in the earlier Violet Hill case, but other than knowledge of them, there are no obvious parallels or overlaps that connect the two main cases from different periods together, particularly as the backstories of Phyllida and Will - even though they may be connected - have almost no significant part to play in the investigations. You can probably find some vague parallels in Will being a man with no face, and the man Susanne is searching for has no face as far as she and CCTV images are concerned, but these are more correspondences than real connections.
There are other similar little mirror images between the two cases, but nothing of any obvious or contrived significance. What perhaps connects the stories on a deeper level is the question of the search for truth, and yes, perhaps even justice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is looking for a truth that will make sense of an absurd world where his son can be used as 'cannon fodder', wishing that there could be something more than this. Susanne is given a different perspective on what is true and what we choose to believe is true, but also whether or not there might be some other force governing our lives. Violet Hill too, when we find out the truth of the Gareth Slattern/Henry Gardiner case, finds that truth and justice are also difficult to pin down.
It's only at the conclusion that many of the mysteries and correspondences are tied up, but the idea of everything settling into place is on a considerably deeper level that just the wrapping up of investigations. Henrietta McKervey's writing is full of little details and observations that create genuine ambience and character but also are suggestive of secrets and those other indefinable intangibles that exist between people and connect them. Lying behind the main stories there are questions about why people go on living, why some people die and why people go to war, but within the context of time the truth is not so easy to define, and there are many versions of the truth to choose from. Henrietta McKervey sometimes pushes a little too hard to define those revelatory moments, but there's no question that Violet Hill is ambitious in its intentions and remarkably accomplished in delivery.
Violet Hill by Henrietta McKervey is published by Hachette Ireland on 7th June 2018