THE WOMAN IN THE LIBRARY by Sulari Gentill (Ultimo Press/Poisoned Pen)
2022 has, so far, been a good year for Australian crime fiction, with several outstanding books and some very original releases. Continuing this run of originality is Sulari Gentill’s The Woman In The Library (Ultimo Press/Poisoned Pen).
Sulari, best known for her Australian historical crime novels featuring Rowland Sinclair, has branched off into an intriguing new direction with The Woman In The Library, which is a mystery story within a mystery story.
The book opens with four apparent strangers; Winifred, Cain, Marigold and Whit sitting at the same table in the Boston Public Library when a bloodcurdling scream breaks the silence. The scream and the resultant ruckus breaks the working mood of the four and they head to a nearby café for coffee. It turns out that the scream was from a woman who was murdered, and her body temporarily hidden. The four become friends and, eventually, possible murder suspects. However, it very quickly becomes clear that the four strangers are characters in a book being written by an Australian author, Hannah, who because of COVID is unable to travel to America to research her novel. So each chapter of her book is sent to Leo Johnson, a struggling writer and fan of Hannah’s previous work. Leo is based in Boston and shares his email opinions and suggestions with Hannah at the end of each chapter. Meanwhile within the main story, the central character, Australian author Winifred ‘Freddie’ Kincaid who is in Boston on a writers’ scholarship, decides to write a novel about the events at the library, but finds herself caught up in a real murder mystery.
This is a very inventive novel, that works as a mystery and a crime novel, as well as a reflection on the art of writing. It sounds confusing, but Sulari makes it work with consummate ease and it far easier to follow than my clumsy outline above suggests. The story flows along at a smooth pace and there is a clever twist at the midway point, which changes the direction of the novel. The characters in the novel are well fleshed out and engaging, and Leo’s reflections are informative and witty, and quite revealing about the writing process. The Woman In The Library is also quite a good murder mystery, with the murderer of the woman in the library nicely hidden until the end.
Weaved within the novel, and Leo’s comments, are interesting reflections about homelessness, race and ethnicity in novels and the challenges of writing during a pandemic:
“The world is on the cusp of being overwhelmed by fear and rage, a dystopia beyond any we might have imagined in our writings.”
My only quibble is that the framing device of Leo’s comments is not as convincingly resolved as Freddie’s story, but this is minor, and overall The Woman In The Library is an impressive and very enjoyable novel. Along with Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, it is one of the most original crime novels I read in quite a while.
Four to four and a half stars out of five.
The Woman In The Library is being released in the United States by Poisoned Pen on 7 June 2022 and in Australia by Ultimo Press on 1 June 2022. It is well worth checking out!
It is getting a different cover treatment in the United States and Australia. I have to say that I prefer the stylish Australian cover (above), what do you think?