The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola
It is 1837 and the city streets teem with life, atmosphere and the stench of London. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, has been sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.
Edmund Fleetwood, an idealistic lawyer, is appointed to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy and consider whether justice has been done. Struggling with his own demons, he is determined to seek out the truth, yet Sarah refuses to help him. Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone with a child would go willingly to their own death?
Over the last few years, I’ve been reading more and more crime fiction. The crime novels I’ve enjoyed most have been those that blend history and crime together. The latest addition to this list is The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola.
The first narrative thread follows the young lawyer assigned to check the validity of the court’s ruling. Edmund Fleetwood is a rarest of men in Victorian society. He is entirely driven by the need for fairness and a sense of justice. One of the most interesting elements of his character is watching how he deals with doubts when they arise. Others might ignore or shy away from any uncertainty in their path, not so with Edmund. When he reaches any crossroads in the case, he reviews and rechecks every piece of evidence again and again. This tenacity, along with his methodical approach, make him an ideal investigator. I also like how Mazzola takes time to explore all of the effects of the case on his home life. His work doesn’t exist in a bubble and there are far reaching consequences when he makes any decisions.
The second strand of the narrative follows Sarah Gale, the woman accused of being complicit in the death of Hannah Brown. Throughout her trial, and the subsequent media furore, Sarah has remained almost entirely silent. She has offered little in the way of defence and seems far too accepting of her potential fate. The chapters that follow her time in jail are fascinating. Every day a new horror. Her only hope for survival is Edmund Fleetwood and his investigation. If he can’t uncover the truth, the only other option is the hangman’s noose.
The people who lived in London in the Victorian age believed themselves to be living in an age of reason and science but it’s amazing how superstitious and backward thinking most of them were. Sarah is treated as little more than an animal by some and a cause célèbre by others. The killing is national news, and the circus that erupts off the back of this makes it feel like the very dawn of the news media and the beginning of them manipulating events to sell papers.
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the best crime fiction seems to be those tales that are based on some nugget of truth. It’s relatively simple I suppose; stories based on a factual element ring true. They feel more believable and that makes them that much more engrossing. The other thing I particularly like about historical crime fiction is reading it with modern eyes. Things that would be relatively straightforward now become major obstacles in the case.
The Unseeing is the sort of novel that is crying out to be adapted for the screen. I’d love to see this story play out on television. The BBC are great at this sort of thing, let’s get the on the case. I’m already picturing my dream cast now. On a side note, I also have a musical recommendation for this read – the sweeping gothic grandeur of the Penny Dreadful soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski perfectly complements the time period and tone of this novel. They’re a match made in heaven. You can thank me later.
Any fans of Mayhem and Murder by Sarah Pinborough may want to give The Unseeing a try. It has the same dark heart and delivers a wonderfully compelling read. Solidly entertaining and accomplished, I had to keep reminding myself that this is Anna Mazzola’s debut novel. I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next.
The Unseeing is published by Tinder Press and is available now.