Review: Before You Knew My Name forces us to look at how the media treats female victims

  • Before You Knew My Name, by Jacqueline Bublitz. Allen & Unwin, $29.99.

This is a murder mystery with a difference, told from beginning to end in the first-person voice of the victim. She is 19-year-old Alice, recently moved from small-town Wisconsin to New York city. We are told in the first 100 or so pages that she is about to be killed; as an unknown in New York, she becomes Jane Doe or Riverside Jane until the final third of the story.

Early in the book we learn about her life in Wisconsin and abuse by her art teacher, leaving that man as a possible suspect. When she moves to the big city, she is cared for by Noah, who takes her in to his apartment and employs her as a dog walker. He seems to be a bit too good: perhaps he is the murderer, the reader may think.

While all this is happening, a 36-year-old woman from Melbourne moves to New York. This is Ruby, trying to get away from a lover who is using her as he runs down the months until his wedding to another woman. When Ruby and Alice meet, the latter has already bled her life out after being raped and killed on a favourite morning route for early runners. The remainder of the story describes the attempts by determined and hardworking police to find the killer.

Ruby is so obsessed by the dead girl that she attends a PTSD session where she meets a young woman named Lennie, a bit of a fumbler and stumbler, who brings her in touch with two other people suffering from post-accident stress. Towards the end, we learn that the stumbling is down to the murdered Alice, who manages from the next life to get into the minds of people trying to find her killer, her most obvious contact being Ruby. The attempts by the living to find the killer is told in the voice of Alice.

This is a most unusual murder mystery. The writing is richly descriptive, sometimes to the extent of inviting a "get-on-with-it" comment from the reader. With a small cast of characters, it deals with the way that women, especially beautiful women, are treated by men and by society. But it is not an anti-male tirade; the men in the story are not all predators or aggressors. In fact, we meet a number of men who can act as models for proper male behaviour; even the New York police, so often depicted as know-it-all bullies, come out of the story with credit.

The other element of the story that deserves commendation is the way that the author does not try to explain or try to find a reason for the motives of the murderer; he is almost incidental to the story and we don't even learn what his sentence was after he was convicted.

This book is the first by Jacqueline Bublitz, who divides her time between Melbourne and the North Island of New Zealand. It is a courageous and confident entry into the world of fiction and one that will earn her many fans.

This story A confident foray into the mind of a victim first appeared on The Canberra Times.