Spiky, thrilling, funny and moving: a Marian Keyes novel to convert the sceptics
FICTION:Don’t be put off by the girlie cover: Keyes’s brilliant new book, about a PI who suffers from depression, highlights her ability to make readers laugh about very dark subjects
The Mystery of Mercy Close By Marian Keyes, Michael Joseph, 506pp. €18.99
IF YOU WERE to ignore all traditional advice and judge the books of Marian Keyes by their covers, you’d probably think they were, to put it bluntly, fluffy. Or cosy. Ever since the publication of her debut novel, Watermelon, in 1995, the covers of Keyes’s novels have tended to feature pictures of shoes, or angel wings, or flowers, or butterflies.
But, as anyone who’s read a Keyes book knows, appearances can be deceptive. Those pastel covers concealed stories about addiction, infertility, depression and domestic violence, tales of bereavement and jealousy and serious illness. The books were also, as it happens, often very funny, but they were certainly not cosy.
And the same goes for Helen Walsh, the heroine of Keyes’s brilliant new novel. Having already made memorable appearances in Keyes’s earlier books about the Walsh sisters, she finally gets the chance to shine in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Or, rather, the chance to glower. Helen is the youngest and grumpiest Walsh, and when last seen, in Anybody Out There (2006), she had started a private detective agency. Six years and one recession later, things aren’t going well: as she says, “private investigators are luxury items and me and the It bags came out of things very badly”.
All her work has dried up, she’s lost her beloved flat and she’s had to move back in with her parents in the suburbs. Which means that when her ex-boyfriend Jay turns up asking for her help in finding Wayne Diffney, a member of the boyband Laddz who has disappeared from his house in Mercy Close just a few days before the group’s big comeback concert , she reluctantly agrees. She hates Jay, but there’s a lot riding on this huge event, and the money is good.
And, besides, there’s not very much that Helen doesn’t hate. Irritable, prickly and capable of holding a deeply felt grudge against a child, Helen is a gloriously grumpy creation. When anything annoys her, she adds it to her Shovel List. “It’s more of a conceptual thing,” she explains. “It’s a list of all the people and things I hate so much I want to hit them in the face with a shovel.” There are many, many things on the Shovel List, including hot drinks, music (not just specific genres but music in general) and any sort of “spiritual” book or CD. Commercial women’s fiction is a more complex field than many of its detractors claim, but, even so, Helen is not a typical heroine of the genre. Not least because she’s living with severe depression.