Friday, April 8, 2022


THE FINAL CALL by Jen Shieff (Mary Egan Publishing, 2021)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

It’s 1979. Auckland is on the brink. Fashion and music are bursting through previous boundaries but prostitution is still illegal and male homosexuality is still a crime.  Who is out to destroy Carmel O’Sullivan and her sister Tess, top call-girls in Rita Saunders’ gentlemen’s club? Is Tess embroiled in the heroin trade that has recently thrust New Zealand’s underbelly onto the world stage for the first time? Why is Carmel’s ex-husband Mike lurking about? Is Felix, the priest of the family, taking his moralising a step too far? What’s going on with Jonathan, their other brother, a respected barrister? 

When Tess is murdered and younger sister Maxine is among the passengers on the ill-fated Air New Zealand flight to Mt Erebus, Carmel feels doomed. Rita’s right hand man, Hungarian immigrant Istvan Ziegler, loves Carmel, offering her the safety and respectability she craves, but he has to compete with Rita for Carmel’s affection and commitment. Carmel’s life is on the line in more ways than one.

Carmel is approaching her 40th birthday. She is noticing the odd wrinkle, and she occasionally feels unattractive. She is torn between her job at the Grand Palais – and her relationship with Rita, the madam – and the possibility of going into a legitimate business and a romantic relationship, with Istvan, the barman and handyman at the brothel. But a gruesome murder, threatening phone calls, a wayward nephew, and a minx who seems intent on supplanting her, give Carmel plenty of other things to worry about.

Carmel is from a Catholic family whose mother died impecunious when her children were young. Carmel and her sister Tess both work at the brothel. Maxine, the youngest daughter, owns and works at a furriers. Jonathan the younger brother is a lawyer and is struggling with coming out as gay, even though his family and colleagues have known for a long time. The other brother, Felix, is a Catholic priest. Relationships range from close to virtually estranged, but there is a get together for Maxine’s birthday – and an unexpected announcement.

Carmel’s mother had not been poor as her children thought, and as the youngest child is now turning 35, there is a large inheritance to be divided between the siblings. Apart from a strange interaction between Jonathan and Tess, and an outburst from Maxine’s teenage son Gabriel, the birthday drinks are not too confrontational. Maxine is excited, as she has booked to go on a scenic flight for her birthday. And the surprise windfall will make Carmel’s decision about buying a hotel with Istvan simpler. But the next morning the discovery of a violent murder throws everything into disarray.     

Carmel is desperate to know who committed the murder and why “… if there was no reason, the silence would last forever, the dead person floating in Bardo without a guide, never finding rest”. She is relieved that Inspector Allan Maynard is given the case, as he has history and a good relationship with Rita and Carmel. But there are so many suspects – Jonathan is still acting strangely, Gabriel is turning into a loose cannon, some of the high-class clients of the brothel might have motive, especially the mysterious Simon Peterson. And there is Carmel’s ex-husband Mike, a bit of a creep who is turning up everywhere.

Carmel even starts to wonder about one of her long-term clients and friends, a priest who enjoys re-experiencing God’s forgiveness by frequently transgressing. And her nephew is a worry – Gabriel is teetering on a knife edge between teenage hormones and mental instability. He is prone to Pentecostal enthusiasm and spouts bible quotes – especially ones aimed at shaming Carmel and Tess. And then there’s Maria. Maria is a young woman who used to run the hotel that Carmel is in the process of buying. She moves into the Grand Palais and quickly starts to usurp Carmel – in style, in behaviour, and in Rita’s bed.

Readers of Shieff’s previous books: THE VANISHING ACT and THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB, will recognise many of the characters in THE FINAL CALL. And they will also recognise the mix of historical detail (the Erebus disaster, the wrongful conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas) and good old Golden Age style crime – there are even family gatherings complete with policeman. There are lots of 1979 cultural references, and maybe a bit too much detail of clothes and accessories – although they do provide flamboyance to the cast. And strongly present in the novel is the unfairness of the laws of the day.

Carmel is “a woman’s woman”, despite herself she is bewitched by Maria. She loves Rita, but knows no woman could replace Rita’s true love, the deceased Glenys. There are no laws against women such as Carmel, but there are laws against men such as Jonathan – men “Scuttling into their own home with their heads down, keeping the blinds drawn, all the time worrying about what the neighbours might say.” And there are laws against sex workers – when the police go to search the brothel, there is a great scramble to hide the money stored in cases under the beds.

Maynard detains then releases a number of suspects, but still there are threatening phone calls and letters, warning Carmel she will be the next victim. She finds out Maxine also received a warning letter, and that both Jonathan and Felix have been attacked: “What on earth is going on? Are we cursed?” But the crime is eventually solved, and in a satisfying way. Carmel makes her decisions about her professional and personal life, and is clearly still going to be calling the shots in her relationship with Istfan. THE FINAL CALL is an atmospheric murder mystery with fascinating characters and a great setting.  

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving former librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

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