Mine: A Novel of Obsession
The premise for J.L Butler’s Mine sounded really intriguing, as did the idea of a barrister heroine, so I jumped right in and was immediately pulled into the story. I don’t read many mysteries (I tend to prefer romantic suspense), but this one grabbed me right away, and even though there were a few things about the plotline and central character that made me scratch my head, I was pretty much gripped from beginning to end.
Francine Day, a hard-working barrister in her late thirties is a bit of a misfit in her profession. She comes from a working class family, she doesn’t have a public school education and she’s from Lancashire, her voice still carrying a bit of the northern twang she grew up with. She works mostly in the field of family law, and has made herself a reputation as one of the best divorce lawyers around, specialising in the marital splits of the very wealthy. It’s this reputation that brings her a client by the name of Martin Joy, an obscenely wealthy investment banker whose wife is out to take him to the cleaners for everything she can get. Donna Joy wants half of everything Martin owns, including half his future earnings – and he wants to protect the company he and his friend, Alex Cole, have built from nothing.
The initial meeting over and arrangements made for the preliminary hearing, Fran is surprised to bump into Martin a few days later, in Selfridges of all places, and he invites her to have a drink with him. One drink leads to another and eventually leads to their ending up in bed at Martin’s East London apartment and to a passionate affair that is completely outside Fran’s normal experience of sex and relationships.
This should perhaps ring the alarm bells. She’s built a career on being upfront and doing what’s right – possibly as a reaction against her rather ‘wild-child’, rebellious adolescence – and she’s being encouraged by her colleagues and superiors to apply to take silk (which means she will become a QC, Queen’s Counsel, which is a prestigious appointment in her profession), and needs to keep her nose clean. But she’s never felt this way about anyone and the thrill of being with Martin pushes all thoughts of her career into the back seat. Eventually, however, the stress of keeping their relationship a secret begins to take its toll, and Fran finds herself gradually drowning amid the lies, her heavy workload and the hints of resurgence of the bi-polar disorder that she normally keeps under control through medication. Even as she recognises the absurdity of her actions, when she suspects Martin is lying to her, and that perhaps his marriage is not as dead as he claims it is, Fran follows him one night and sees him meeting Donna, for a meal and then continues to watch them as they return to her house late that night.
Angry, frustrated and jealous, Fran gets blind drunk – and then wakes up on her neighbour’s sofa the following morning with no idea of how she got there or what happened after she saw Martin and Donna going into the house.
But worse news is to follow a few days later when it transpires that Donna Joy has vanished, and Fran may well have been the last person to have seen her. Martin insists that Donna was prone to just taking off for days and weeks at a time without warning, but the fact that she took nothing with her – no bag, ID or clothes – says this is something more than her usual impulsive flit. The police pursue a missing persons enquiry but it’s clear that they suspect Martin has something do so with his wife’s disappearance, especially given everything he stands to lose in the divorce. Yet in spite of things she’s learned about Martin since they first met, in spite of the fact that he’s lied to her and is clearly a ruthless operator, Fran knows he’s innocent. But she can’t prove it. Even so, she goes all out to protect Martin and to protect herself, becoming more and more deeply enmeshed in the ever expanding circles of secrets and lies that are spiralling out of control.
My fellow reviewer Shannon – who reviews a lot of mysteries – often says that she doesn’t have to like characters for them to be engaging or interesting, and that’s definitely something that was going through my head as I read Mine. It’s not always easy to believe that Fran is the highly-educated, dedicated professional we’re asked to believe her to be, and there’s no denying she makes some unwise choices. Getting involved with a client is certainly unprofessional, and the fact that she drinks to excess on occasion, even though she knows she should avoid alcohol because of the medication she takes – yet she still manages to be an engaging heroine.
She’s someone who hasn’t had a lot of close personal relationships in her life, which perhaps makes her obsession with Martin understandable. He’s hot, he’s rich and he’s clearly interested in more than just a short fling with her, and she likes the power-rush she gets from knowing the effect she has on him in the bedroom, especially. But this element of the plot falls down somewhat because the character of Martin, as written, isn’t particularly charismatic. He’s described as being handsome, charming and magnetic, but he’s underwritten, which makes it difficult to fully buy into Fran’s obsession with him and thus to understand some of her less sensible decisions. But with that said, her mistakes make her seem more human, more ordinary and relatable somehow; and I was able, in spite of them, to become sufficiently invested in her to need to know how things would pan out.
Mine is an expertly woven, well-paced and intense story, and I enjoyed it in spite of its flaws. The friendship between Fran and her bestie, Claire, feels very genuine, and the author’s depiction of life in a busy chambers and of the London locations (and the area of Essex I live in) all ring very true. I didn’t see the final twist coming, which is always a bonus, and while the characters might not be particularly likeable, I didn’t mind it; their shortcomings make them interesting, at the very least. If you’re looking for an engrossing but not too dark and gory mystery to while away a few hours this summer, Mine might very well fit the bill.