The Monkey’s Mask is a totally unique experience. It’s poetry. It’s a crime thriller. It’s where high art meets low life, passion meets betrayal, and poetry faces profanity on the streets of a harsh modern city. Dorothy Porter’s internationally bestselling verse novel holds you in its grip from the first verse paragraph to the final haunting pages.
“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 my university course, and I am thankful I did, as it is something I’m very glad I’ve read. Porter manages to seamlessly blend the genres of crime thriller and lesbian romance into near 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 called Jill to try and find her. Jill obliges, and so picks up the trail of the missing student. Pulled into Mickey’s world of poetry and passion, she manages, also, to quite quickly 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 advertised as a crime thriller, in her choice 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 takes away completely from the detective story, in fact, for me, it enhanced the mystery of the whole plot itself. As well as this, the sectioned collections of verse leave way for a much deeper development off 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. None the less, 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 quite a while after you have closed the book. In doing this, she has created a rich and inviting world of something which for most is very familiar territory. 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 processors throughout the case.
One poem which is most memorable for me comes from early in the first section in the novel ‘The New Job’, it is 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 toed the line between the genres of crime and romance, and managed to mix them in a way which makes them recognisable as separate, but also something new when seen as one. This is a deeply powerful read for those who aren’t so familiar with poetry and lovers of poetry alike. Despite the lack of undivided focus on the advertised main genre of detective fiction, The Monkey’s Mask is an intense and encapsulating read. Which for me, meant that I was hooked from page one, and unintentionally read it all in one sitting, before diving back in to almost immediately read it again.