Corinne Sawyer leaves her lover fast asleep between the tangled sheets of their bed. She puts on her designer running gear and strides off into the early morning chill, music pounding in her head via her earphones, her feet pumping out a rhythm which triggers the endorphins which will ease her legs and lungs through this challenge. Corinne won’t see forty again, but she is proud of her body, and will not go down without a fight as middle age creeps ever nearer. But the expensive cosmetic surgery which has recently refined her face is shattered – along with life itself – when she is brutally attacked on a lonely path.
When Corinne’s body is discovered, Peterborough CID are called to the scene. The medical examiner gets to his feet rather quickly, and before he can answer the inevitable questions about the time and cause of death, he stuns the waiting detectives with the simplest of statements.They are not investigating the murder of a female jogger. The victim is, in the most obvious of ways, a biological man, and thus the murder becomes a case of extreme transphobia – and a job for the city’s Hate Crimes Unit.
Not the least of Eva Dolan’s achievements in this remarkable novel is to pinpoint with painful accuracy and honesty what happens to children and wives when a father – originally Colin Sawyer – decides to abandon the male role and become a woman. Even after the nightmare scene where Sawyer’s daughters come back to the house unexpectedly, and find their father en femme at the sink, doing the dishes, Jessica and Lily have come to think of their dad as ‘mum’. The pain that this must cause a biological mother in this situation can only be imagined, and it is interesting that Nina Sawyer is drawn as a fairly unpleasant piece of work.
Dolan doesn’t preach, but she sets out with stark clarity the yawning chasm between perfectly decent and honest people who have genuine difficulty in understanding the whole transgender issue, and those individuals whose psychology is at potentially destructive odds with their physiology. We peer in at a world where gender pronouns can be wielded with as deadly effect as fists, hammers and knives. Dolan also casts a wary eye over the role of professional anti-phobia activists, and suggests that, while their intentions may be good, their handiwork can have tragic consequences.
Aside from the nuanced description of gender politics and psychological challenges faced by the characters in this novel, we have to ask the burning question. Does Watch Her Disappear work as a crime story? My answer is a resounding and emphatc ‘Yes”. The whodunnit aspect of the story is teasingly effective, with Dolan (right) scattering little hints, false leads and blind alleys in her wake as she races along ahead of us. Crime fiction is full almost to the brim with Detective Inspectors and their trusty Sergeants, but Dolan breathes on those particular embers and makes them fire up afresh in the shape of Detective Inspector Dushan Zigic and Detective Sergeant Mel Ferreira of the Hate Crimes Unit. The neat twist is, of course, that both Zigic and Ferreira are themselves children of immigrants, and the chemistry between the two is potent and complex.
Incidentally, speaking as a near-local to Peterborough, I can testify that the topographical setting of the novel is impeccable. Dolan captures beautifully the crunching of the gears between the different facets of the city. The old Victorian railway town, with its certainty of values and smoky industrial warmth does not always sit happily with the once-familiar terraced streets where mosques have replaced Methodist chapels, or the quick-build-garden suburbs where every street is either a Meadow, a Leys or an Orchard.
The killer is eventually unmasked by Zogic and Ferreira, but not before Dolan has woven a spectacular spiders’ web – delicate yet strong – of motive, jealousy, human frailty and guilt. Her triumph is the revelation that the broken body found on that Ferry Meadows footpath was not just one person, but both Colin and Corinne. If that is too enigmatic, then you will just have to read the book for yourself – you will not regret doing so. Watch Her Disappear is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.