Who She Was review: Tony Parsons' new thriller is a love letter to Cornwall


In the Cornish folk tale of the Mermaid of Zennor, a mysterious young woman sometimes spotted at her parish church is followed home one day by a young man and never seen again. A group of local sailors later claim to find her when she reappears to them as a mermaid. She is “the beautiful woman who everyone loved but nobody knew”, writes Tony Parsons of the folk figure, whom he recasts as a femme fatale named Clementine in his latest novel, Who She Was.

This Cornish thriller — full of murder and delicious plot twists — is set in the fictionalised town of St Jude’s (St Mawes), across the bay from Polmouth (Falmouth), and makes a point of being very Cornish, even though Parsons lives in Hampstead, and has done since 2004.

Harry Styles, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Chris Martin, Rick Stein: you get it, Cornwall is hip, hot and very posh now, a point of consternation of the novel’s narrator, Tom Cooper.

A retired journalist who has moved to the coast and opened a restaurant, The Lobster Pot, Cooper has swapped the world of booze and book launches for the world of booze and fishermen. The action sets off from page one when he spots an unknown woman on the beach by a bonfire, whose regional accent he can’t quite place and whose story he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out.

I devoured it in two days

Clementine — or Tina, as characters from her past who come into the story later on call her — is both vixen and chameleon, coquettishly demure at times and madly violent at others, bewitching all the men in the town and beyond and wreaking havoc along the way. If you like volatile characters and character-driven mystery (and really, you should), this book is just the ticket. I devoured it in two days.

In Who She Was, Parsons, a best-selling author, draws on his own experiences as a journalist. Now 70, he began his career at the New Musical Express and spent five years married to fellow journalist Julie Burchill, with whom he has a son. The publishing titles in Tom Cooper’s past are never named, though nostalgia for the heyday of print and the madness of old Fleet Street is evoked rather beautifully.

Equally evocative are Parsons’s descriptions of the South Western coast: the dolphins, or the mirage of dolphins, skirting the surface of the sea; summer flings between local teenagers and visiting teenagers from London sneaking out of their rentals after hours.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the narrator’s reverence for the “hard, honest lives” of the St Jude’s townsfolk. Who She Was is, more than a crime novel, a love letter to Cornwall — its place at the end of the country providing a chance at life anew and endless inspiration for writers (Winston Graham, Daphne du Maurier) — and an exploration of the entanglements and complications that arise in places where the people who catch the lobsters resent, yet need, the people who eat them.

It’s now beyond cliché to say a novel would make for good TV (my pet peeve is when authors drop hints for the soundtrack by naming songs in the text, which Parsons does twice). But this really would.

William Hosie is an Evening Standard writer

Who She Was by Tony Parsons is out now (Penguin, £8.99)