‘The undisputed queen of noir’ – Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth

Ernemouth, a small seaside town in England in the 1980s. Corrine Woodrow, a teenager about to leave school is charged with murder, tried, found guilty and imprisoned. The details of the murder reveal an apparent satanic element. There is a public outcry, rage and a subsequent witch hunt. Twenty years later private investigator Sean Ward is asked to carry out an investigation into the murder. He’s been hired by a client who believes that the original conviction was a terrible miscarriage of justice.

Ward, a former police officer in the London Met initially visits Corrine in prison. He discovers a woman, now in her late 30s, totally institutionalised and probably unsuited for life outside of prison. His initial contact in Ernemouth is with the editor of the local paper, Francesca Ryman, who deserted the bright lights of London for the provincial backwater of Ernemouth.

Weirdo, told in alternate chapters, switches between 1983, the lead-up to the murder, and  2003 when Sean Ward begins his investigation. The 1983 narrative charts the lives of a group of teenagers central to the case. They are just about to finish school and are fixated with fashion, music, relationships and college. Nothing seemingly out of the ordinary then with this group of school friends.

When the story switches to 2003 and Sean Ward begins his investigation we are able to observe the social changes which have taken place in the town, the amusement arcade has closed down, and most of the classmates of Corrine Woodrow have moved on. Some things however don’t change. The town still has its mysteries which it is extremely reluctant to reveal, and continues to regard outsiders with suspicion.

The tension in both stories increases as piece by piece Ernemouth reveals its secrets. Central to the investigation and spanning both narratives, is retired Detective Inspector Len Rivett, who headed the local police force in 1983 when the murder took place.

Rivett is a most despicable character whose dealings go beyond merely taking kickbacks. There are no lengths to which he won’t go, no one he won’t use and abuse in order to consolidate his powerbase in Ernemouth. Rivett regards Ernemouth as his own personal kingdom. He runs vice and drugs rings and has something on each of the town’s more noteworthy citizens. Unsworth’s descriptions of him will render Rivett instantly dislikeable though at the same time thoroughly memorable.

A supernatural subplot runs through the narrative. This may at first seem annoying and superfluous but this was the area in which Matthew Hopkins in 1644 charged more than 300 women with acts of heresy and witchcraft. Unsworth weaves this supernatural element into the story gradually but flawlessly. Characters in the novel use spells cast by the light of the moon to conquer demons both real and imaginary. Finally a ritual hexagon is photographed at the site of the original murder.

Subcultures, outsiders, music lovers, artists, people seemingly on the edge and cut adrift. Men and women with something to hide and who are not what they seem. Individuals who have suffered a loss, personal or emotional and who are in the act of attempting a recovery, these are the characters of Weirdo, Cathi Unsworth’s latest novel.

Any Cop?: If there was ever any doubt, Weirdo will further establish Cathi Unsworth’s claim to be the undisputed queen of noir.

Joe Phelan

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