FBI sketch artist Marx Thoreau carries two secrets in his black little heart. First, he is the son of notorious serial killer Donald Bath. Bath killed over sixty people during his life in the small town of Stonewall, using his victims’ blood to enhance the reds of his beautiful, dark paintings. But more importantly, Marx must hide his obsession, and unrealized lust, for the corpses of beautiful women.
Marx discovers a new object of desire when he is called back to Stonewall to sketch the visage of the Sleeping Beauty, a “Jane Doe” discovered on a rural road near the old Bath farmhouse with no apparent cause of death. Driven to discover more about the beautiful corpse, the young artist begins to uncover the dark secrets that stir beneath the graves surrounding his childhood home. Soon his search for answers draws the attention of Maple, an alluring innkeeper with origins as dark as Marx’s and an obsession with death to match.
As in his beautiful short story “Woman on the Horse” (from the anthology Wretched Moments), Ray explores the fine line between beauty and revulsion in death as magnified by art. The prose is elegant, alternating between lyrical and darkly humorous, and carries the plot at a good, readable pace. The central mystery is interesting, coherent, and ultimately satisfying. But the story of the Sleeping Beauty is really secondary to the developing relationship between Marx and Maple and their consequent self-realizations. It is in the passages describing the darkness that lies in their hearts, and the manner in which they approach their shadowy desires, that Ray’s writing truly shines.
The novel does suffer from a few minor issues that could have been easily addressed by closer editorial scrutiny. For example, the novel is set in 1976, which serves to create an atmosphere similar to the lurid, low-budget occult films of that era. Unfortunately this atmosphere is broken too frequently by spelling errors and minor anachronisms that take the reader out of the story. Nevertheless, these mistakes are small and could fairly be classed as nit-picks.
Unknown Female is an interesting, if quirky, read. As a bonus, it is probably the best book about necrophilia that you will ever encounter.