Marian Keyes is an author who is almost beyond the reviewing process. She has sold so many books and is loved by so many readers, she is sure to find a keen readership with this latest one too. The Mystery of Mercy Close is her fifth book about everyone’s favourite dysfunctional Irish family, the Walshes. This time around, it’s the most ostensibly unlikeable Walsh sister, Helen, who gets to tell her story in a novel combining humour, romance and mystery with an exploration of depression. Keyes has famously suffered bouts of depression herself and uses that experience here to great effect by unpacking many preconceptions about the illness without writing a manual on the topic.
Helen Walsh is a private investigator which, it seems, is not the kind of service people spend money on during an economic downturn. A financial dry spell sees her move back in with her elderly parents, losing many of her possessions and a lot of confidence in the process. Just as she is skirting close to rock bottom, her charming ex-boyfriend Jay turns up with an intriguing – and lucrative – missing persons case. Jay Parker is putting together a reunion tour for one of Ireland’s most popular boy bands – Laddz – and one of the members, Wayne Diffney, has vanished. She doesn’t trust Jay, but desperation does funny things to a person. She realises she’ll have to battle a few old demons of her own if she’s going to make any headway on the case.
Keyes is deft at combining social satire with a substantial narrative; humour and drama with equal warmth. My reading of the novel coincided with the televising of the Australian X-Factor (which I’m only watching for the kids, promise) and I couldn’t get the image of Ronan Keating and his Boyzone lads out of my mind. I was, however, expecting a fairly stereotypical representation of the pop world – but Keyes’ take on fame is instead quite refreshing. Similarly, I enjoyed the fact that comedy in this novel is often derived from Helen’s cutting wit. In this way, the humour enhances characterisation rather than providing funny incidents or set pieces (though there are enough of those to keep you going).
There are several mysteries at work in this novel. In addition to the obvious disappearance, there are gradual revelations about Helen and Jay’s past, about her complicated relationship with current beau Artie and the origins of her most defining creation – her Shovel List: “…a list of all the people and things I hate so much I want to hit them in the face with a shovel.” Helen is no affable rom-com heroine: she is a force of nature, smart and opinionated. She also suffers from a deep, dark depression and, through her, I think Keyes has delivered one of the most insightful fictional dissections of mental illness I’ve ever read. Helen’s descriptions of the ‘blackness’ that haunts her periodically will resonate with anyone who has ever had to tame that most disobedient dog.
Helen’s occasionally illogical responses to situations and muddled perspectives also work as an interesting narrative device for a mystery novel, where clues and memories and people’s accounts of a situation are vital. Similarly, the Walsh family’s curious mixture of love and detachment provide tension and complexity, reminding us of how easy it can be to make assumptions about, and misunderstand, what is going on in someone else’s head.
The Mystery of Mercy Close will be snapped up by Keyes’ fans who’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Walsh family life. It left me keen to fill the holes in my reading of the Keyes back catalogue and should put paid to any association with the lighter end of so-called ‘chick-lit’. This is a substantial novel (both in subject and its actual length of over 500 pages) but it’s well worth sinking your teeth into.
The Mystery of Mercy Close is published in Australia by Penguin and I thank them kindly for my copy.