In Greek mythology, Persephone is the queen of the underworld. In the brilliant debut novel by celebrated scriptwriter and script editor Michelle Rowe, detective Persephone (Persy) Jonas, small in stature, boyish, dogged to the core, is the plucky young woman tasked with navigating the underworld of a community where little is as it appears. With her domestic life a trying powder keg, living with family under conditions far from ideal or affluent, she finds a form of escape in visits to her elderly grandfather, Poppa, and in her work for the SAPS. At every turn, Persy is reminded that because she is a woman she is lowly and vulnerable and dependent and childlike, and that she is unlikely to ever remove a cloak of cloying violence and self-doubt from her being.
Persy must team up with retired criminal psychologist Dr Marge Labuschagne, seemingly insufferable when not getting her own way, to get to the bottom of the murder of a suspected sex offender. Rather than making the pair mutually amiable and accepting from the start, Rowe wisely allows a slow, grudging respect to accrue between two equally damaged souls, searching at first separately and then together for the keys to unlocking the mystery that propels them forward, and back in time.
The bottom line, the all-too-subjective “truth” being sought, lies hidden under multiple layers of societal muck, the kind not only plentiful in the poverty-stricken township of Ocean View but perhaps even more so at the heart of the superficially placid stretch that covers Fish Hoek, Kommetjie, Glencairn, Misty Cliffs and Scarborough.
Few readers will be able to anticipate the kind of narrative sleight of hand that Rowe is able to execute here. The first level at which this sleight of hand, this adroitness and trickery, is in full bluster is in terms of the plot. Ever since the classic crime fictions of Poe and Christie, and particularly with the hardboiled greats like Chandler, the “simple” act of murder is the way into an investigation of the way things are, how they supposedly were, and how they could be, in some cases. Crime, especially murder, cracks the mirror, and in What Hidden Lies, every shard of reflection either brings closer a terrible truth or obscures what was difficult to comprehend in the first place.
Rowe decides that the murder victim is to be someone that many people could have wanted dead. Just as the discovery of the body in question on the beach by Labuschagne is the catalyst for a multitude of hidden lies to be revealed gradually, so too is the meeting of psychologist and detective the spark that ignites the novel’s action.
But much of the fuel to the story’s fire is provided earlier in a richly atmospheric prologue which establishes the childhood bond between the diminutive Persy and the man that is to become her nemesis, the gangster and drug peddler Sean Dollery. While Persy is to attend police college, he is to embrace the thug life, aware that his opportunities are limited by circumstance. What lies hidden in the shared past of the pair is a childhood tragedy, a major revelation offered only in the novel’s elegiac conclusion.
With a rather shapely cast of well-drawn and distinguishable characters populating this dense, sprawling novel, each with his or her own fears, anxieties and ambitions, the suspenseful, clever plot (where red herrings abound) and myriad of conflicts (fresh and long-standing) are secondary to the remarkable relationship Rowe is able to develop between the two women most invested in the murder case.
Initially, Persy and Marge are at loggerheads to the extent that they seem utterly incapable of forming any kind of bond or investigational synergy. Yet, by taking her time to shift the focalisation and attention to particular details of each character’s troubled past (the poverty of Persy’s upbringing, her relationship with her caregiver and grandfather Poppa, Marge’s guilt over a particular patient’s therapy and its awful end result, her work with the TRC), Rowe creates ample opportunity for the reader to get to grips with the way that these women have been shaped by the turbulent course of their lives.
The more that the hidden and the buried in their own lives come to resonate so trenchantly in their shared present, the more they become unified in their race to uncover the identity of the killer. The final revelation of the murderer’s identity and motivations is both surprising and executed with aplomb.
The novel’s suggestive title and expansive content offer much to savour. While an exposé in crime fiction of police corruption, dissatisfaction and malaise has become standard both internationally and locally, Rowe weaves into the narrative histories of exploitation and forced removals under apartheid, and makes the question of land reform and development central to the action.
The writer adds a layer of urgency and threat to the protagonist, upping the stakes as she makes the workplace a place of emotional harm and physical threat for Persy, as she is mercilessly intimidated by a male colleague. This heightens the suspense during the later stages of the novel, when Persy goes from being hunter to being the prey, and she seeks solace by moving in with Marge.
Currents of racism, prejudice, addiction and dereliction cascade across the page, making for a grim and forbidding atmosphere, while the relationships between parents and children are deftly explored.
Rowe also adds a much needed injection of gallows humour into the proceedings. Such humour is often supplied by Marge, who is as cutting and acerbic a character as local crime writers have managed to conjure. Incidentally, she is also as layered and convincing as any male lead in the local corpus, while it is hard not to fall in love with the way that Rowe gives her resilient heroine Persy a quiet dignity and grace.
The novel’s mysteries inevitably channel Faulkner’s aphorism that the past is never dead – it’s not even past. It is the way in which the novel manages to weld tangible menace, doubt, suspicion and peril to writing that is austere in its beauty and razor sharp in its exactitude that ultimately makes What Hidden Lies so satisfying, and praise so easy to give.