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Posted on 4 Aug 2020 in Crime Scene, Fiction | 2 comments

KIM KELLY Her Last Words. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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Historical novelist Kim Kelly (author of Walking, Sunshine and Wild Chicory) turns to the 21st century in her new novel to deliver a tale of intrigue and literary ambition.

What a strange year 2020 has been. The world has already had bushfires, floods, pandemics, recessions, even plagues of locusts to contend with, and we’re barely seven months in. Who knows what new terrors we will find ourselves facing before welcoming 2021 with a glass of bubbly and a sigh of relief? What better time to seek comfort in the arms of a good old-fashioned murder?

There are crime novels that revel in the deep, dark details, that seek to explore and maybe understand the twisted minds that inflict fear and pain on those around them; and there are those that are all about the mystery, with the murder itself serving as a catalyst for the series of clues that will finally be pieced together into a satisfying conclusion. Kim Kelly’s Her Last Words borrows more from the latter category, as we follow the story of how Thisbe Chisholm, would-be novelist and actual nightclub attendant, ends up battered to death early one morning as she walks home from her boyfriend’s house following the kind of stupid argument that everyone picks with their loved ones when tired. The kind of argument that, due to lockdowns, frustrations and the confines of quarantine, is probably happening around the country more often than we’d like to think.

At the time of her murder, Thisbe had been carrying a manuscript, a printed copy of her first novel, finally finished and holding within its pages all her hopes and dreams. But following an apparent mugging gone wrong, the manuscript disappears into the night as thoroughly as the rest of Thisbe’s short life, leaving behind little evidence that it had ever existed.

And that is one of the key themes that flows throughout this book. Once our bodies have passed on, is anything of us left behind? How much control of this do we have, and how much inevitably stems from the personalities and biases of others? And can our presence – and then our absence – shape the lives of those we’ve never even met? Does it matter that an unpublished manuscript evaporates into the ether? Or does it create ripples that will lead to real consequences in the flesh and blood world?

The days that follow the murder play out in the press like another episode of reality TV. John, Thisbe’s boyfriend, is a rising star in a television police drama, and the tabloids ignore the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to focus on the couple’s ‘very own soap opera’. Even worse, others choose to warn their readers that:

‘Miss Chisholm appeared to have lost a shoe when surprised by her attacker, suggesting that she may have tried to run but was unable to do so – a grim reminder that designer high heels are not made for walking alone at night.’

As the days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months and even years, no resolution presents itself. Attention instead turns towards a new manuscript that is creating a great stir in the publishing world, co-incidentally written by one of Thisbe’s friends who had never before shown any inclination towards authorship.

This is because, as it turns out, the mystery at the heart of Her Last Words is not a murder at all – rather, it is the mystery of human nature, of how one unexpected event can send lives veering off down paths they never intended to tread. Meeting people they probably would otherwise never have met. Being faced with temptations they might have avoided. And being tested in ways that might not reflect as well on their character as many might have thought.

‘Poor John,’ one character muses:

… what a sunken soufflé he was. Jane didn’t understand why he hadn’t been able to get up again after the blow. Back in the day, she’d coveted him – after all, he was gorgeous, torso on him like Adonis – but his collapse was extremely unappealing. Careful what you covet, hm? What a sad sack.

In a world that is increasingly faced with the very real, very scary mysteries of pandemic transmission and global recession, there is a surprising comfort in relaxing into the arms of a story where you know that every loose end and worrying detail – whether it’s who committed the murder, the truth of the new manuscript or what happens next to Thisbe’s friends –will be tied up neatly into a safe little bow if you just relax and let it happen. Her Last Words, though more of a AndThenWhat than a WhoDunnit, is well placed to play this role. If only real life would be so accommodating.

Kim Kelly Her Last Words Jazz Monkey Publications 2020 PB 320pp $25.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.

You can buy Her Last Words from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


  1. Lovely review of this most satisfying book!

  2. Sally, thank you for your insightful review of this intriguing book. Looking forward to following up on your observations. Her Last Words is certainly on my reading list for 2020. Suzanne