Art teacher Rosemary Cawley has been exiled to Auckland, New Zealand, due to her upper-class British family not coping with her accidentally-discovered erotic poetry; it is the 1960s – the Vietnam War, toothpick-skewered cheese and gherkins, an almost Victorian-era sex culture … and Rosemary gets close to one of her Elam colleagues, Judith Curran, who along with her “best boyfriend” Istvan Ziegler, isn’t above a bit of amateur sleuthing. But when someone is murdered and others go missing, things get a bit out of hand, and just about everyone becomes a suspect, as “greed is such a monstrous thing.”
The vanishing act is a glorious romp, full of action and interesting characters and set in a complex sub-culture of sex-workers and gay women. This lens allows Shieff to give her characters freedom to be themselves, while also referring to their marginalisation: Rita Saunders, a brothel owner, is side-lined at the funeral of her partner of eight years, and she must remain anonymous when making charitable donations; her income being illegal.
The novel opens with Istvan finding the body of a local G.P., George Abercrombie. George has been disgraced as a gynaecologist, but mate-ly given a second chance. He was friends with the Elam registrar, Alistair Dunstan, and they had a permanent weekly outing to a “car club”, and both were party to damaging information on the other: “Their friendship was mutually beneficial in a dark and dirty kind of way”. The cast of characters is rich: George’s wife Virginia loathed him; Alistair is in an odd Turner-esque relationship with his housekeeper, Mollie McLeod, whose neglected but obedient son, Bobby lives with her ex-Madam, Bee Digby, Rita’s nemesis. Bee and Bobby just happen to be neighbours of newly arrived Rosemary. And Istvan works as a jack-of-all-trades for Rita. The characters soon get entwined, especially when Rosemary and Judith divulge secrets from their respective pasts.
Shieff is light-handed with the research, but drops in enough styles, tunes, cuisine, and odd name for us to recognise 1960’s New Zealand. Even the attitude of the cops is right, Inspector Allan Maynard “didn’t see the point of enforcing a law that did no harm”, and he models himself on Eliot Ness (the Robert Stack version). The novel turns into a police procedural, even if the police are a little slack in their techniques – but this allows Istvan to keep finding clues, even if he is hoping they implicate rather than clear Rosemary, as Judith desires.
While set in the 1960s, The vanishing act has more than a touch of the ‘Golden Age of Crime’ about it, and the murder mystery is neatly solved – and yes you can get there first, there are enough clues. But in a way that is secondary to the description of the contradictions and darkness of society, Rosemary being in one way quite free and independent, but in another being forced into situations and choices, the spectre of suicide looming over gay women, and the outrageous behaviour that men were (are?) allowed to get away with – well sometimes. The vanishing act is a follow up to Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, but can be read as a stand-alone.