In 2002 Gabrielle Lord’s novel DEATH DELIGHTS won the Ned Kelly Award for best fiction. Although it was the sixth year the award had been given this was the first occasion a female writer was to receive it, an achievement that has only been repeated once since then with 2012’s PIG BOY by J.C. (Jane) Burke. Lord had been beavering away at the crime and thriller writing caper for at least 22 years by the time she won this award, having released her first standalone novel, FORTRESS, in 1980 and publishing a total of eight books prior to DEATH DELIGHTS.
The novel is a procedural which introduces forensic scientist Jack McCain. Once a cop with the NSW police force Jack studied to become a scientist and now works for the Australian Federal Police based in Canberra. Though when the novel opens he is on leave and is back in Sydney. His old partner asks him to help out with an investigation into the deaths of two men who have been murdered in a particularly grizzly way. Jack (having a vastly different definition of ‘being on leave’ than I do) throws himself into the case.
Jack has more than his fair share of personal troubles as well, several of which come to a head as DEATH DELIGHTS progresses. His teenage daughter Jacinta ran away from home 18 months earlier and Jack and his estranged wife Genevieve are out of leads on where to look for her when police receive and anonymous tip regarding her whereabouts. Jack immediately follows up, learning facts which have disturbing repercussions for his entire family. In addition Jack has never really given up wanting to know what happened to his little sister who also disappeared as a teenager; kidnapped from near their family home when she was 13, some 25 years earlier, and never having been seen alive since then. When it appears there is a connection between his sister’s disappearance and the case of the murdered men whose bodies have been mutilated Jack wonders if he will finally learn what happened to his sister.
DEATH DELIGHTS is complex and suspenseful and while there is some gruesome violence it is not gratuitously dwelt on. Lord weaves together all the elements of Jack’s personal and professional lives with consummate skill and the reader is never left floundering for something interesting to look out for. I particularly like the way this novel combines the traditional investigative type of case, with interviews and surveillance and so on, with the scientific elements. Unlike episodes of CSI or some of the more formulaic novels I’ve read there’s no instant case solving by finding a particularly unlikely fingerprint but the science, always well explained, offers an added dimension to matters at hand.
But the book has other layers too. It is almost like an adult coming of age story for Jack who has so many threads of his personal life to keep track of and so many past mistakes he feels the need to atone for. Lord has explored the notions of family and of how we learn to be good parents, siblings, partners and so on. The idea that this all comes naturally seems to be a given in society but through Jack, who is by no means a deadbeat, we see how hard it can be to take on these roles without a handy instruction manual. What was perhaps most realistic was that even when he knew what the correct behaviour or gesture should be Jack couldn’t always bring himself to give that hug or spend the necessary time with the person who needed him. In other words he was a very realistic human.
DEATH DELIGHTS has something for every crime fiction fan containing procedural, forensic and cold case elements as well as a thoughtful family drama. It can easily hold its own against the more well known imported offerings in these genres, with the added bonus of a thoroughly Australian sensibility. A highly recommended novel that should be seen as a classic of the genre.
For my re-read of this novel in preparation for this post I chose to listen to the unabridged audio version narrated by Aussie actor Francis Greenslade. It’s a terrific edition of the book and Greenslade does a first rate job of the narration, managing to provide a range of natural sounding voices for the large array of characters without once falling into the trap of getting too ‘ocker’. Elsewhere I bemoan the dearth of locally available audio books with affordable pricing and good format options, so here I must direct you to the US Audible store if you are interested
I decided that as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I would highlight some older novels of the crime genre that are notable for some reason or other, having won an award or contributed to the genre’s development in some way. It’ll be an eclectic mix, largely based on what I can get hold of via my library but if you have any suggestions for books that might make good features please leave a comment.
DEATH DELIGHTS is the second book I’ve read for this year’s challenge
Publisher: Bolinda Audio [this edition 2011, original edition 2001]
Length: 13 hours 25 minutes
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