Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.