By now the excited anticipation with which I approach each of Katherine Howell’s new novels is tinged with a smidgen of dread that her normal high quality won’t be maintained. But within a few pages of starting WEB OF DECEIT I knew my worries were needless as I was reminded that Howell has few equals when it comes to the consistency of her intricate plots that manage never to stray into ridiculous territory while gripping the reader from the outset and not letting go until the final page.
Howell’s sixth novel starts out with paramedics Jane and Alex attending a minor car crash where the victim, Marko Meixner, appears to be uninjured but possibly suffering from a mental illness as he refuses to be removed from his car and talks of being followed. After finally coercing him from his car they take Meixner to the nearest hospital and leave him waiting for a psychiatric consultation. Later that day they are called to assist with a body recovery from underneath a city train and the victim is Meixner. Jane expresses her doubts that it is a case of suicide to Ella Marconi, one of the detectives called out to the scene. Ella and her partner Murray are soon deeply involved in trying to determine if Meixner fell, jumped or was pushed under the train, all the while fighting against their new boss’ penchant for bringing cases in on budget.
The novel is aptly titled in more ways than one as its plot really does form a web of stories which meet and part and meet again in surprising ways. The police must investigate Meixner’s past, in particular a single incident from nearly 20 years ago, as well as his current life to uncover who, if anyone, might have had a motive for killing him. Is there something dodgy happening at his seemingly normal workplace or could he have become the victim of his wife’s stalker? I loved the way that each person they talk to – wife, colleagues, doctor, friends – describes a different version of the same man and it’s up to the detectives to build an accurate picture from everyone’s impressions. This helps to keep the reader guessing about who the culprit might be, if indeed there even is a culprit, as well as offering genuine insight into the phenomenon that we humans seem to have an infinite capacity to be different people depending on the environment we’re in.
In addition to this side of the book there are threads dealing with the work and personal lives of the paramedics which, not unreasonably, intersect with the work of the police on a regular basis. Alex’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is the single dad to a teenage girl who is being particularly troublesome and, when the book opens, he has recently returned to work after a very stressful incident left him psychologically damaged. This incident, as well as several others described throughout the book, shows how demanding and traumatising this work must be which is something Howell, an ex paramedic herself, manages to do with sensitivity that never crosses the line into being maudlin.
To top all this off WEB OF DECEIT has real heart in its depictions of the people affected by trauma and violent crime, be they victims, investigators, paramedics or family members. When Ella and Murray are confronted with the wife of a victim who refuses to accept her husband is dead the dialogue, the awkwardness and the emotions ascribed to all involved are touchingly realistic and an example of what makes the book such a great read, if a sad one on occasion. At different times the key players are dedicated, frustrated, exhausted, frightened or desperate for a brief respite and as readers it is easy to be drawn into their emotional journeys because at least some of the situations in which they find themselves are ones we recognise from our own experiences and the rest are easily, scarily imaginable.
Fans of the series will be pleased that a development in Ella’s somewhat rocky personal life awaits them in this instalment but I have to say this is one series you can start anywhere. Personally I’d recommend you read all six books, starting with FRANTIC, but if you’ve not read any of Katherine Howell’s novels you could easily leap right in to her version of Sydney with WEB OF DECEIT. It’s a fast, clever, sometimes sad, sometimes funny romp of a tale. Highly recommended.
WEB OF DECEIT is released in Australia on 1 February 2013
I’m counting this as my third book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for this year
Publisher: Pan Macmillan 
Length: 349 pages
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