Book review: It Takes One To Know One, by Isla Dewar

I always imagine that the authors of mystery novels must rue the invention of mobile phones. A quick call to ask a question, a text to avoid a misunderstanding or even research done on the hoof by Googling a fact must be the enemy of trying to keep suspense going.

It Takes One To Know One
It Takes One To Know One

It Takes One to Know One avoids all this by being set in the 1960s. The protagonists, who work for the Be Kindly Missing Persons Bureau in Edinburgh, have to do real legwork in finding those who have disappeared from families and relationships.

The errant husbands, abused wives and absent children they are tasked to seek out are being looked for for a variety of reasons involving yearning and heartbreak but also revenge and control.

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Setting the novel in the 1960s also has the benefit of giving the author a fascinating social backdrop, as the protagonists are caught between the staid post war years and the cool casualness of the swinging decade.

Martha’s husband runs away from her, literally breaking into a sprint down Queen Street Gardens, just as she thought that their small family, along with daughter Evie, was the epitome of domestic bliss.

The two had met when both were involved in the music industry and the shift from a free and easy youth to domestic plod must have been one that came as a shock to many at the time.

Martha and her daughter now live with her mother, Sophie, who lost her husband in an accident but is young enough to sometimes feel that life has passed her by.

Charlie, who runs the detective agency, is himself missing a mother after discovering that the woman who brought him up and who he thought was an aunt, was an unrelated neighbour, but not knowing the circumstances.

After Martha starts work with Charlie, the two investigate missing persons cases while both are preoccupied with getting to the bottom of their own mysteries.

All three of the main characters possess charm, and Dewar writes with warmth and affection.

The characters who populate the novel have plenty of quirks, not least Charlie himself, who is wracked with self doubt and in possession of a flatulent dog. Sometimes, however, their quirks are flagged up a little too obviously. Charlie says of himself: “I don’t think of myself as a grown up. Maturity is a facade for me. I have a grown up body complete with the necessary hairy bits. But in my head I’m six and when the going gets tough I want to run away.”

Such a habit of telling people what you are like feels a lot more of a modern habit than the natural dialogue of the 1960s.

Characters revealing their deepest thoughts with every utterance can make for clunky conversations too. Discussions taking place in a mood of hurriedness as characters chase across the city include cute asides on the itchiness of woollen jumpers and aphorisms about the human condition. At times the shift from drama to wisecracking to winsome is a bit too swift.

Inevitably, there is romance – how could there not be when one of the main characters is a quirky man with a quirky job and a quirky dog? – and all the mysteries are wrapped up by the end.

There are few dramatic revelations and everything turns out much as you might expect, and for the reason you thought, although perhaps mystery solving isn’t what the novel is about.

Yes, it’s flawed, with a cast of characters too large to keep track of, but It Takes One to Know One has enough wit, warmth and charm to keep you reading.

It Takes One To Know One, by Isla Dewar, Polygon, 352pp, £9.99