“I want you, trouble,
on the rocks.”
Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask is one of many novels I probably wouldn’t have picked up at all if it weren’t for uni, but I’m thankful I did. Porter manages to seamlessly blend the genres of crime thriller and lesbian romance into nearly three-hundred pages of verse. Yes, you heard me correctly! Verse. This somewhat unusual combination of crime, passion, and poetry makes for an intensely engaging read right to the last line.
The Monkey’s Mask follows the story of Jill Fitzpatrick, an Australian Personal Investigator living in the Blue Mountains. She is brought back to Sydney on a missing persons case, recruited by word of mouth. Mrs Norris’ daughter, Mickey, is missing and she calls Jill to try and find her. Jill obliges, and picks up the trail of the missing student. Pulled into Mickey’s world of poetry and passion, she manages to find a love of her own. As Jill gets closer to the truth, she unravels a much deeper plot that just the ‘girl gone missing’ she’d anticipated, and within that learns that love and lust though advertised as near the same are in fact near opposite.
Though this novel can be considered a crime thriller, by her decision to write in verse Porter loses the ability to put as much detail in, in terms of the actual mystery. This is substituted with extensive metaphor and an observant, but almost vague internal monologue. This in no way detracts from the detective story, in fact for me it enhanced the mystery. In addition, the sectioned collections of verse leave room for a much deeper development of character, especially on the part of Jill. It must be noted though that for a lot of the novel, our detective Jill is lusting over Diana, one of Mickey’s tutors. This romance makes for some very erotic poems, which somewhat go against the grain of the darker undertones of this novel. Nonetheless, these poems make up the rich intensity of the whole collection, and without them, it is possible the novel would fall quite flat.
The poems themselves are rich with a very emotive and accessible language, in a simple but effective form. So for those who feel they don’t really get poetry, this is for you. Porter’s verse is gritty, raw, and something which will stick with you for quite a while after you have closed the book. In writing The Monkey’s Mask she has created a rich and inviting world, covering very familiar territory in a unique way. Each section of the novel sets up a different tone and theme, letting each poem push the passage of time and carry you through Jill’s thought processes throughout the case.
One poem which is most memorable for me comes from early in the first section in the novel ‘The New Job’, titled, I’m Female. Though short, it hints subtly at Jill’s characterisation, and more than that, sets up the tone and themes of the novel quite beautifully.
“I’m not tough,
droll or stoical.
after wine, sex
or intense conversation.
The streets coil around me
when they empty
I get scared.”
In writing The Monkey’s Mask, Porter has cleverly navigated between the genres of crime and romance, and manage to mix them in a way which makes them recognisable as separate, but also something new when seen as a whole. This is a deeply powerful read for those who aren’t so familiar with poetry and for lovers of poetry alike. Despite the lack of undivided focus on the genre formulas inherent to detective fiction, The Monkey’s Mask is an intense and encapsulating read. Which for me meant I was hooked from page one and unintentionally read it all in one sitting, before diving back in to almost immediately read it again.