The Woman Who Knew Too Little by Olivia Wearne

‘My parents were initially amused by my decision to join the police force.’

December 1948. Officer Kitty Wheeler, a female member of the South Australian Police Force, is patrolling Somerton Beach in Adelaide one night with her partner, Fiona. They see a man leaning against the sea wall, apparently drunk. It is late, they are tired, and they leave him to sleep it off.

Unfortunately, the man is dead, and no-one knows who he was. Kitty discovers this from the front page of The Adelaide Advertiser the following day. Has Kitty has missed a career-making opportunity? Female police officers at the time were mainly called to domestic disputes, cases of child neglect, prostitution and runaways. But Kitty is drawn to this case and joins in the investigation whenever she can. There are opportunities for involvement: many people came forward hoping that the Somerton Man was a missing relative or friend.

Kitty’s mother is concerned. She wants Kitty to marry her boyfriend Peter and become domesticated. Kitty herself is torn between her job and marriage. Marrying would require her to resign from the police force.

Ms Wearne has used the real case of the Somerton Man (whose identity remained a mystery until July 2022) to highlight the choices available to women in the 1940s (and beyond). While Kitty’s parents were initially amused by her choice to join the police force, they see it as a temporary measure, not a career.

I enjoyed seeing the mid twentieth century through this novel, together with a contemporary view of the case of the Somerton Man. Less enjoyable (but accurately portrayed) were the restrictions placed on women.

‘Lionel Leane was all in favour of free speech, so long as everyone kept their mouth shut.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith