Where to start with Peter Dickinson’s Death of a Unicorn? Well, for starters, it wasn’t quite what I expected. I must be honest – I bought the book on Kindle without even glancing at the blurb, partly because of the title (which made me think of The Last Unicorn) and partly because Dickinson is the husband of the amazing novelist Robin McKinley and also because he wrote The Flight of Dragons, which became the inspiration for the 1982 cartoon movie of the same name which totally blew my mind when I was a kid.
Death of a Unicorn, however, isn’t a fantasy book as I first thought it was. It’s not exactly a mystery either. Personally, I would call it a ‘human interest’ book. It reminded me a lot of Agatha Christie, especially Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott, A Daughter’s A Daughter, for example, or Giant’s Bread.
Though not a fantasy, Dickinson throws in some pretty neat allusions to fairytales such as the comparison of the heroine’s mother to a wicked witch, the meeting of a ‘frog prince’, the appearance of a ‘secret panel’ to aid the heroine while attempting to escape from an unwanted suitor at a party, and Cheadle as the stone ogre waiting for his sacrificial bride each generation. I’ve never actually read any of Dickinson’s books before and his writing is lovely – elegant and simple and quintessentially 1950s British. It is not a page-turner in the sense that there’s always some rush of adrenaline or crisis point that makes you need to find out what happens next – in fact the book sort of just meanders along like a gentle stream – but nevertheless Dickinson does compel the reader to keep reading on and on, wanting to find out more.
After reading the first couple of chapters and finding out this book wasn’t, as I initially thought, about a real unicorn, I flipped back to the blurb which merely says that Death of a Unicorn is based on Dickinson’s years at British magazine Punch. There is a certain feeling to parts of the book that would appeal to anyone who, like yours truly, is a former media student and also kind of working in a media-esque field right now and always had a hankering for the old days of journalism where everyone sat around smoking in their offices, having long lunches that consisted more of alcohol than of actual food, and where Hunter S. Thompson-esque types skulked around with ink-stained fingers, though, looking back now, if the media had been as much of a boys’ club as it had been back in the day, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. Nostalgia always tastes good in the present, not in the past! Anyway, those who like that sort of thing would enjoy this book as well.
But that’s not all Death of a Unicorn is about. So it’s not exactly a mystery and not exactly a romance and not exactly a book about newspapers and magazines. What is it, you might be asking? Well, the gist of it is this – it’s about an heiress, simply put. Lady Margaret, heiress to the massive stone fortress that is Cheadle (think Downton Abbey) and all the unwieldy costs and taxes that come with her inheritance, a genteel and not-quite-impoverished noble, yet one who is the owner of some very expensive, historical sapphires. It’s a story about Lady Margaret, or Mabs, as she is called (which makes me think of Shakespeare’s Queen Mab of the fairies), about her overshadowed twin sister and her overbearing mother, about her time as a young socialite/social reporter, and of her first lover, the enigmatic Brierly. All this, set against the backdrop of post-war London in the dying days of the British Empire and with the stone giant of Cheadle Abbey looming in the shadows, so to speak.
I’ve already compared Dickinson’s books to Agatha Christie/Mary Westmacott, and now I’ll add another comparison. John Fowles is a contemporary of Dickinson’s, and therefore there’s more than just a few marked similarities between their books. They both write about British society, for example, and more or less in the same era. There is a whiff of Fowles around Dickinson’s descriptions of Mabs’ love affair with an older man, the unintentional pun of Maidenhead, for example, but Mr Brierly is more human and more relatable than, say, Maurice Conchis of The Magus or Henry Breasley in The Ebony Tower.
For that matter, all the characters in Death of a Unicorn are quite likable and easy to sympathise with. There is no particular villain in the piece – each character is equally flawed, yet there is always something to admire within them, even if it’s just their single-mindedness or tenacity or striving ambition. Mabs, in particular, is a cool, collected sort, a poised and composed thoroughbred. She may be a young, virginal socialite but she’s not altogether an innocent naïve, and I’m glad of that because that would have probably turned me off her. And she might have been carrying on an affair with a man who is way too old for her, but don’t let that part of the book fool you into thinking this will be anything like Ebony Tower or, God forbid, a James Clavell novel. If anything, Death of a Unicorn is filled with incredibly strong female characters, much stronger than any of the male characters in this book, in fact, though the males do acquit themselves pretty well too.
If you like Agatha Christie and John Fowles, you will like this book. If you like reading about ‘50s/‘60s British era days, you will like this book. If you like Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Easy Virtue or I Capture the Castle you will enjoy this book. In fact, there’s also this shadows-and-yet-shadows quality about the book – and particularly, the mystery of Mr Brierly – that makes me think of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in a sort of way, so if you like that, you might like this book too. In fact, if you enjoy reading a good book that will give you food for thought for days after, read this book.