I was drawn to reading this novel after Unsworth appeared in the New Blood Panel at Harrogate this year. She was a very interesting, eloquent and engaging contributor, and was also very open about the background to her novel. Unsworth has a background in the music industry – the publishing arm of it – and has been a journalist on Melody Maker.
From in her input on that panel I knew this novel would be dark and "The Not Knowing" is a novel of noir, without a doubt. Set in London and its darker trenches of society, habitat and habit, this is not a novel for the cosy reader. The title itself is a draw, as it’s the "not knowing" about something that drives you on and eats you up, until you finally get the information you seek, or let go.
In a nutshell: back in 1992, Diana Kemp, the main protagonist, is a writer for "Lux", a new magazine with big editorial aspirations. Famous film director, Jon Jackson, who has recently set trends with his cult gangster movie "Bent" – every other male is now dressing like a Kray twin – is found dead. His body is discovered beneath the railway arches in Camden Town where he was brutally murdered, the scene a re-enactment from his movie. Lux is in possession of the last ever interview with Jackson, obtained the night before he was murdered, so it’s no surprise when the police turn up…
Unsworth has a love of crime fiction and crime fiction itself is woven into the plot, along with music and film. I found the novel a little unusual and unexpected in its progression. There were things that worked for me and things that didn’t:
- Unsworth has a remarkably cutting eye and tongue (or should that be "fingers on keyboard") when it comes to human behaviour; neither is she afraid to say it.
- Unsworth’s prose style is easy to read, but I did suffer from "name overload". On occasions I was not sure who was fiction and who was real, who was to be a featured character and who was just a passing mention.
- It’s a bit obvious who the murderer is and, lo and behold, we have the disclosure about half way through the novel. This had me thinking "So, what now?", but I read on, the next chapter being the start of the tying up of loose ends, including ones you’d never dream about, as well as a chase towards the end, and further, profound disclosures.
- So many of crime fiction’s clichés are in this novel, but there is still a gripping need to read on.
It’s a gritty novel, and one that will tell you of the effects of a physical attack and death, muscle relaxations included. Unsworth said at Harrogate that she wanted to "…talk about, and hence expose our ‘nasties under the carpet’, particularly violence against women and children". This, she achieves.
In conclusion, I’d say that if you enjoy reading noir, this is a novel you’d definitely appreciate. Ditto if you seek a novel that opens your eyes and delves under the heavy blankets of contemporary society. (In reality, have we delved those blankets since 1992? I think not.) If you prefer a cosy, stay away. I suspect that readers who enjoy Jake Arnott’s novels would also enjoy this novel.
I read "The Not Knowing" and appreciated its page turning story as well as its goals, but I have to admit I’m not a noir reader. If you read noir, this is a good addition to your collection.