The Vanishing Woman by Fiorella de Maria (Ignatius Press, 2018) is a good, old-fashioned English whodunit à la Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, or Chesterton’s Father Brown. In an unnamed English village sometime after the end of World War II, the town’s most hated woman, a villainous schoolmistress named Enid Jennings, is walking home one evening in plain view of her adult daughter, Agnes. Agnes turns for just one moment to make a cup of tea, and Enid Jennings vanishes from sight. Agnes’s story is so ludicrous that when Enid’s body washes up in the river, the police suspect Agnes of committing the crime herself. Only Father Gabriel, Catholic priest and amateur detective, believes Agnes is telling the truth, and sets out to prove her innocence.
Father Gabriel’s investigation will unravel a wide net of deep-seated hatred, lies, and wartime crimes committed in the name of King and Country, and he will offer reconciliation to a town full of troubled souls.
This is the second book in the Father Gabriel mystery series, but the first that I have read. Fiorella de Maria has crafted a well-thought-out mystery full of all the twists, turns, red herrings, and dramatic reversals that mystery readers crave. Father Gabriel is a worthy detective, and as a mystery, it delivers.
In the wider context of storytelling, however, the book leaves many holes that need to be filled. Father Gabriel has come to the town from the abbey where he normally lives in order to help relieve one Fr. Foley of pastoral duties while the latter recovers from a heart attack. But where is this town? To what religious order does Father Gabriel belong? Is Gabriel his first name, his last name, or a name that he took with his religious vows? Such questions may have been answered in the first book of the series, but they are left as questions here.
Likewise, I had difficulty getting to know the townspeople because very few were given a specific age. As the characters’ sordid backstories unfolded, I often had to stop and re-evaluate what I thought I knew about the timeline of their lives and adjust the age at which I pictured them. Aspects of the story directly related to the mystery of the vanishing woman are told with a high degree of specificity, but unfortunately, de Maria’s world-building and character development do not always receive the same care.
Nevertheless, the writing is always competent and often insightful, easy and pleasurable to read. As with most whodunits, some aspects of the plot are far-fetched, but in keeping with the norms of the genre. As a work of Catholic fiction, it offers a world in which sinners are called to account and atone for their sins, and where judgment must be tempered by mercy. Certainly, this is a world worth contemplating.
However, I think de Maria missed an opportunity to do more. It is a mystery to me why the people of this English town all seem to be Catholics, or else lapsed Catholics. No other church — including the Church of England — has any presence. To me, this not only reduces the credibility of the setting, but it denies Father Gabriel the ability to do his work in the real, ecumenical world, where reconciliation must bridge the divide of different faiths.
Despite its flaws, The Vanishing Woman is a pleasurable, breezy read, a summer beach book that will keep readers engrossed in mysteries both human and divine.
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Copyright 2018 Karen Ullo