I don’t know if he had a 13-Point plan for it but David Owen’s latest novel to feature Tasmanian Detective Inspector Franz “Pufferfish” Heineken is just about the perfect murder mystery. From its deliciously out-of-the-ordinary cover (taken from a gorgeous art work by a Tasmanian artist) to its last linguistically playful sentence the book is a pure delight.
It is the seventh instalment of the series which spans 22 years and it sees the wily DI, known as almost universally as Pufferfish (due to his tendency for being generally prickly, occasionally toxic and sometimes exploding when severely provoked), confronted with a fascinating array of crimes. Aside from ensuring there is always something going on I found the mixture of matters requiring the attention of Owen and his team a good reminder that not all police work is about the hunt for crazed killers. Here, one of Pufferfish’s offsiders gets the team involved in the investigation of the theft of a school boy’s stamp album (the boy is a student of Faye’s old teacher and the alleged thief belongs to a family well known to police) and this unlikely thread provides a great deal of the book’s drama and humour. Two members of a different family that the police are also well-acquainted with claim that their husband/father has been the subject of an attempted murder (at the very least) and that they themselves are now under threat. Meanwhile, the case that grabs the whole island’s attention involves the grizzly murder of a well-connected visiting polo player. Owen has done a great job of pacing all three stories across the length of the novel and keeping the reader guessing about what inter-connections might be at play and when a story is really, truly over.
The book is told from the first-person perspective of Pufferfish himself. This is a narrative point-of-view I often find awkward but when done well, as it is here, it can provide a great perspective. We really see the world through Pufferfish’s occasionally jaded eyes, such as when the book opens and we find him on a course
In a room without a view, I’m one of 35 captives being tortured, a faceless cop…It’s agony. At the Police Training College we’re enduring a Professional Development course, the nasal drone of the lecturer soporific over a mid-distance lawnmower on this stuffy late summer afternoon.
As PD goes, this one is being delivered by a fellow with tortoiseshell specs on drop-down string is grindingly dull, except for encouraging that edgy sensation of trying not to nod off in a highly controlled environment.
Me and my miserably entrapped colleagues are here to learn about the constant need to improve the public image of policing.
Pufferfish is not always as downbeat as this might make him appear (not that anyone who’s ever sat through one of those Development courses would blame him for his despair) and is at heart a decent cop trying to get at the truth. That he’s not as enamoured with rules, senior management and wealthy types who attempt to wield power unduly as his bosses would like makes him all the more endearing to me.
The novel also offers a great sense of its place; bringing to life the isolation of island living, the ways that nature – with its beauty and its harshness – affect the state and incorporating real world elements very naturally. For example, the five-year old MONA, Australia’s largest (and just about only) privately funded museum, is the backdrop for a great scene and this is indicative of the kind of local colour the book is full of.
At some point I should stop being surprised that it is often people not born and raised here, like David Owen (who is from the Netherlands originally) and Peter Temple, who draw the best pictures of Australia in their writing. I like that Owen’s version of Australia is both light-hearted and serious when necessary, that his characters can laugh at themselves and stand up for the little guy when it matters and that beauty and ugliness co-exist if not harmoniously then inevitably. 13-POINT PLAN FOR A PERFECT MURDER is funny, fast and has a fiendishly good plot. You should read it immediately.
Publisher: Fullers Bookshop 
Length: 297 pages