Book Review: The Unmourned by Meg and Tom Keneally

The Unmourned is the second book in the crime series set in colonial Australia from daughter and father team, Meg and Tom Keneally.

I enjoyed their first collaboration, The Soldier’s Curse, which takes place in Port Macquarie, a penal settlement for reoffenders, and introduced Mrs. Mulrooney, an Irish housekeeper, and Hugh Monsarrat, an English gentleman convict.

In The Unmourned, Monsarrat, with his ticket of leave regained, is in Parramatta, with Mrs. Mulrooney, now employed as his housekeeper and unofficial assistant.





SYNOPSIS

For Robert Church, superintendent of the Parramatta Female Factory, the most enjoyable part of his job is access to young convict women.

Inmate Grace O'Leary has made it her mission to protect the women from his nocturnal visits and when Church is murdered with an awl thrust through his right eye, she becomes the chief suspect.

Recently arrived from Port Macquarie, ticket-of-leave gentleman convict Hugh Monsarrat now lives in Parramatta with his ever-loyal housekeeper Mrs. Mulrooney. Monsarrat, as an unofficial advisor on criminal and legal matters to the governor's secretary, is charged with uncovering the truth of Church's murder. Mrs. Mulrooney accompanies him to the Female Factory, where he is taking depositions from prisoners, including Grace, and there the housekeeper strikes up friendships with certain women, which prove most intriguing.


MY THOUGHTS

An English gentleman and his Irish housekeeper seem an unlikely team to solve crime given the enmity that existed between their two nations at the time and that they are of a different social class. But it works. For despite their backgrounds, Mrs. Mulrooney and Monsarrat have a genuine liking and respect for one another. Also, they share a common bond: they are both convicts who have been granted their ticket of leave. Their relationship is very informal, bordering on that of a mother and son rather than that of a master and servant, but so engaging that you can't help but warm to these two characters immediately.

Mrs.Mulrooney is delightful. Her domain is the kitchen area, to which Monsarrat is a regular visitor for tea and advice. Apart from her excellent tea making skills, Mrs. Mulrooney is also an expert tea cloth flicker and is not averse to flicking Monsarrat when he behaves like an “eejut”. Her liveliness, wit and humourous logic, especially when grappling with the vagaries of the English language as she learns to read and write, gives the impression that she is much younger than she actually is. Regardless of the danger she is as determined as Monsarrat to solve the crime. Able to move around more freely in the Female Factory than Monsarrat, she is an asset in garnering information and gaining the trust of some of the women.

Monsarrat, on the other hand, is more reserved, although his thoughts often reveal he does have a sense of humour, if a somewhat dry one. Seen through the eyes of Mrs. Mulrooney, he is a decent human being who takes an interest in the lives of others despite his own problems. He acknowledges Mrs. Mulrooney's good sense and attributes much of his present good fortune to her powers of deduction. He endears himself further to the housekeeper by keeping a promise made to her late mistress. At times Monsarrat finds Mrs. Mulrooney irritating, mainly when she is scolding him, but he is very tolerant and is never unkind to her.

Having finally obtained his ticket of leave after being a reoffender, Monsarrat is mindful of how easily it could be rescinded. As clerk to the Governor's Private Secretary, Monsarrat tries to go about his business discreetly, aware that there are many ready to report him for any misdemeanour. He is also under the scrutiny of the Superintendent of Police, Ezekiel Daly, who has a strong dislike of convicts and is just waiting for Monsarrat to transgress again.

Robert Church, the victim and the unmourned of the title, is a truly despicable character. Not even his wife mourns his passing, which means there are a great number of suspects for his murder. A very challenging situation for our sleuths. All the inmates of the Female Factory are under suspicion, but the authorities are convinced that Grace O'Leary, labelled as a trouble maker, is the guilty party. Monsarrat is not so sure, but his search for the truth is hampered by the accused not willing to co-operate and others who have their own secrets to protect.

The Unmourned takes an interesting look at the practices of the Parramatta Female Factory, a multi-purpose facility (prison, reform school, employment agency, marriage bureau, factory and workhouse), where female convicts were housed before being assigned. Although far from salubrious, it was meant to be a place of safety for them. Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The Unmourned is a clever blend of mystery, history and humour, with enough back story included to make it a very readable, stand alone novel. Meg and Tom Keneally write with a light, engaging style that brings to life the characters and successfully evokes 1820s Parramatta. The conclusion was exciting and even though it didn't end the way I'd expected, was very satisfactory. It definitely whetted my appetite for the next book in the series, which takes our duo to Van Diemen's Land.

2 comments:

  1. I'm not all that into mystery novels but these do sound interesting (and I love Australia)!

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    Replies
    1. These are not intense mysteries, but very entertaining because of the two main characters.

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