The Final Call, Jen Shieff
A sequel to THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB and THE VANISHING ACT, THE FINAL CALL is set in 1979 (10 or so years after THE VANISHING ACT) located in Remuera New Zealand, where Rita Saunders is the boss at The Gentlemen's Club, a high class brothel. Rita's more than a madam to her girls though, and the brothel is more than just a house of prostitution, Rita's girls are comfortable, protected as much as she possibly can and as safe as they can be in a country where prostitution was illegal up until the early 2000's.
Switching the concentration a little in this book, Carmel O'Sullivan, Rita's girlfriend, has been salting away a nest egg of considerable proportions while working at the brothel. She's planning a move away, investment in a respectable business, and a quieter and more genteel life. Hungarian immigrant and handyman at the brothel, Istvan Ziegler, is deeply in love with Carmel, and hopes her new life will include him. Plans for the change are proceeding reasonably well, given there's always the doubt that Carmel will be able to leave Rita, when Carmel's sister Tess, also working at the Club, is found brutally murdered after an appointment with a handsome, seemingly very well off new client. It looks for all the world like a hate crime, but Carmel is in for another blow when her younger sister dies in a tragic plane crash and Carmel's world starts to fall in on her.
Left as the remaining sister of five siblings, her Catholic brothers do not approve of Carmel. Her brothers - priest Felix a moralising pompous man, and outwardly respectable barrister Jonathon, prone to angry outbursts, have never approved of their sisters, and it was never destined to go well when an unexpected windfall further complicates the mess that the family has found itself in. Not helped by the return of Carmel's abusive ex-husband, and a mentally unstable nephew.
All of which might sound a bit complicated, but Shieff handles the multiple threads in this story with considerable aplomb. Her settings, rich with details of Auckland's history, illustrated by the fashions and customs of the time create an environment in which her characters exist, and rub up against each other.
Shieff has built a tricky world for these people - one in which prostitution is illegal, homosexuality is frowned upon and foreigners have a complicated path in society. Whilst the story flows in and around Rita, Istvan and Carmel, the supporting cast are strong. In particular, the central investigating cop, Allan Maynard is professional and determined to solve the case - he, along with others, are not as antagonistic to the lifestyles of the central characters as the family.
The plot centres on the murder investigation, and the fear that comes from not knowing whether she's next, leaving Carmel worried for her life. Istvan and Rita are there for her, in their own ways, making the relationship between these three "outsiders" touching and quite moving.
This series has a number of compelling elements to it, and THE FINAL CALL echoes them strongly. The depth of the characters and the complexity of their lives, reactions and interactions. The realistic and utterly believable setting - both physical and societal is vividly drawn, as is the sense of a time and history of a place, and the people who inhabit it.
I finished THE FINAL CALL a while ago, and it's been in my mind ever since. I have to admit I love these characters and admire them, and these books, very much.
It’s 1979. Auckland is on the brink. Fashion and music are bursting through previous boundaries but prostitution is still illegal and male homosexuality is still a crime. Who is out to destroy Carmel O’Sullivan and her sister Tess, top call-girls in Rita Saunders’ gentlemen’s club? Is Tess embroiled in the heroin trade that has recently thrust New Zealand’s underbelly onto the world stage for the first time? Why is Carmel’s ex-husband Mike lurking about? Is Felix, the priest of the family, taking his moralising a step too far? What’s going on with Jonathan, their other brother, a respected barrister?
When Tess is murdered and younger sister Maxine is among the passengers on the ill-fated Air New Zealand flight to Mt Erebus, Carmel feels doomed. Rita’s right hand man, Hungarian immigrant Istvan Ziegler, loves Carmel, offering her the safety and respectability she craves, but he has to compete with Rita for Carmel’s affection and commitment. Carmel’s life is on the line in more ways than one.
The Final Call delves into the past to say things about a world that are still relevant forty years later, for prostitutes, homosexuals and independent women, as well as for brothers, sisters and lovers.