Review: COMMON PEOPLE by A.E. Martin

CommonPeopleMartinThe full title of the this novel – at least the edition I read – is COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY which gives a little more of a flavour of what is to come. The book’s original American title – THE OUTSIDERS (1945) – also offers a good feel for its story’s subject matter Initially published as a serialised story in an Australian magazine in 1943, as a novel it was first released a year later and tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people. Pelham – or Pel as he’s generally known – is what today we’d call an entrepreneur but who is described in the book as

…he was city – a lurker, a fellow who lived on his wits, with no trade, no profession, relying on his imagination for his bread and butter.

His central work in this story is the financing. promoting and running of a 10-week show displaying the world’s most successful starving man to the people of London. Business-wise things are going well but on the eve of his big show’s commencement an old friend of Pel’s is murdered. This horror happens in the flat underneath the one in which Pel and his sideshow act friends are celebrating so they all become potential suspects and at least one policeman is champing at the bit to arrest at least one of ‘the freaks’.

The character of Pel must surely be at least a little autobiographical given A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin’s own potted history which includes several years on the European carnival circuit with Houdini as his mentor. He also worked as a journalist, magazine owner, travel agent and publicist for a variety of the kinds of acts we meet in the book before turning his hand to writing (both fiction and non fiction). This breadth of experience gives COMMON PEOPLE its authentic feel and the sense that the reader is being drawn into a different world rather than being asked to point and snigger at it which could so easily have happened. There’s no hint that the author is laughing at or exploiting these people which gives the reader permission to simply be fascinated in learning about this truly absorbing world.

The plot rocks along at a fair pace with Pel hooking up with a couple of more enlightened policemen than the one who sneers at and suspects all the carnival acts. Even so there are a couple of genuine suspects among the crowd and suspicions must be worked through before a satisfactory resolution comes to pass. All the while we are treated to the trials and tribulations of being a carnival act or the promoter of one which provides the story with a lot of warm humour.

My only disappointment in reading the book – given the author was born in my home town – is that there is very little Australian about it. Aside from one character claiming to be an Australian that is. But for someone not terribly fond of the circus I found myself completely absorbed in this tale and its characters and gripped by the classic whodunit suspense. I’m grateful (as ever) to the people at Wakefield Press who included this story in the series of forgotten Australian crime classics they released in the 80’s and 90’s.


Publisher: this edition Wakefield Press [1994]
ISBN: 9781862543034
Length: 212 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE DRY by Jane Harper

TheDryHarperAudioJane Harper’s THE DRY is well named. The drought-ridden, stiflingly-hot town of Kiewarra and its surrounding farmland dominate the book. Remote. A small population; always someone you know nearby which can be a blessing and a curse. And the weather. Always the weather. Refusing, almost with intent, to give even a hint of relief from heat and dryness and failing to provide the sustenance needed for the farming everyone relies on for their livelihoods. Their lives.

The story opens with an all-too imaginable scene of an apparent murder-suicide of a farming family in this inhospitable place. All dead except for baby Charlotte

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm.

We are drawn into the story of this place via Aaron Falk. Kiewarra has dominated his life too. He was born there but left as a teenager. Forced out. Literally. After one of his friends had died. Officially she committed suicide but many locals think Aaron played a role in her death. Only something as dramatic as his best friend Luke Hadler’s funeral brings him back 20 years later, after he’s made a life for himself as a Federal police officer in Melbourne. Well that and a veiled threat. Still Aaron plans to be in and out of town pretty quickly but Luke’s parents have other ideas. They don’t believe their son killed his wife, their son and himself. They want Aaron to prove it. Need him to prove it.

A lot of crime novels rely on abnormalities to keep readers’ attention. Serial killers with macabre fantasies. Impossibly convoluted crimes. Implausibly brilliant and/or quirky detectives. THE DRY has none of that. Even that horrendous weather is par for the course in the driest continent on the planet. Yet even without gimmicks and quirks, the story is completely gripping. There is such a palpable sense of the hidden here. Some people’s secrets are innocuous – merely an attempt to wrestle some privacy from life in the fish bowl that small town living can be. Others are embarrassing. Others are truly awful. Criminal. Harper does a brilliant job of keeping us guessing about which is which right through the novel.

THE DRY is a very modern tale of Australian life that happens to have a crime or two in it. There’s no criminal mastermind at work. Just ordinary people reacting to what they experience. What they think they know. Aaron feeling unable to walk away, wanting to know the truth about his old friend Luke. Once and for all. Luke’s parents wanting to feel like they can look people they’ve known all their lives in the eye again. The local policeman wondering if the murder suicide is really staged or does he just want it to be something unusual. Random locals believing the version of that long ago death that has become folklore. Amidst the powerful backdrop of place these people’s stories could get swamped but Harper brings them all vividly and realistically to life and makes the reader desperate to know what has brought each of them to the point at which we’ve met them.

It would be more remarkable that this is a debut novel – because it is about as flawless as they come – except that Harper is a long-time journalist. So storytelling is clearly not new for her. Even so, whatever she produces next will have a lot to live up to. I for one can’t wait.

My experience of this truly excellent book was further enhanced via a fabulous narration of the audio version by local voice artist Steve Shanahan. His voice changes for different characters are perfect, his cadence and pacing are natural and he seems to be enjoying the story himself (this is not always the case). 


AWW2016This is the 11th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: This edition Wavesound Audio (original edition Pan Macmillan) [2012]
Narrator: Steve Shanahan
ASIN: B01GSHH17S
Length: 9 hours 37 minutes
Format: audio book

Review: THE BANK MANAGER by Roger Monk

TheBankManagerMonkFollowing the adventures depicted in this novel’s predecessor Detective Sergeant Brian Shaw is assigned to provide an on site detective presence for the Yorke Peninsula, north west of Adelaide. The year is 1950 and until this time all police detectives have been based in Adelaide which proves expensive and wastes time when investigations requiring their expertise happen outside the city. Brian Shaw, and his personally selected offsider Senior Constable Harry Fetter, are to act as a sort of pilot program for the notion of having detectives based in key locations all around South Australia. Anyone could be forgiven for thinking the two policemen ensured their program’s success via some kind of personal intervention when the normally uneventful (fictional) town of Midway sees high drama the same week that the Adelaide policemen arrive. The manager of one of the town’s two banks disappears one Tuesday afternoon, failing to return from his regularly scheduled visit to an outlying town to provide banking agency services. Frank Anderson is well liked and respected; a happily married man. His family, the town residents and the police are baffled to explain the reason for his disappearance let alone the manner.

As with THE BANK INSPECTOR  the book has an authentic historical feeling to it. Monk has depicted the pace and lifestyle typical of such places with affection, obviously using his own experiences as a country banker to draw on. There’s no big city sneering at country bumpkins here; if anything the slower pace and inter-connected nature of the town’s residents are highlighted as positive attributes of country living. The difficulties that Shaw and Fetter encounter in uncovering what has happened to Frank Anderson really highlight how policing has changed with the advent of technology. About all Brian Shaw can rely on is shoe leather, the town grapevine and his own wits.

Perhaps the pace at which the story unfolds would be a little slow for some readers but I enjoyed the way the book offered a real sense of the time it must have taken for such investigations to unfold. And there is a lot else to enjoy in the book as we meet all the town’s residents, several of whom attempt to ensnare Brian Shaw as an eligible bachelor for their unmarried daughters, and often provide humorous elements to proceedings.

I found the characterisations here stronger than in the first novel. Brian is more well fleshed out we seem to spend more time learning his inner thoughts. His sense of nervousness and excitement at being given such an opportunity is palpable, as is his excitement over a growing love interest (I’m not letting on whether it’s one of the town’s daughters or not). Among the other well-drawn characters my favourite is Miss Iris Wearing: the last surviving member of a wealthy family. She can be haughty, even rude, but reveals both softness and nerves of steel to Brian Shaw in some very engaging passages.

I can thoroughly recommend THE BANK MANAGER to fans of historical crime fiction, especially those who prefer plot and character to guns and blood. There are deaths in the book but minimal depictions of violence, even the kind that happens after death in the form of autopsies and the other grim realities more modern settings seem to demand these days.


Publisher: Horizon Publishing Group [2016]
ISBN: 9781922238573
Length: 335 pages
Format: paperback

Review: THE DRY, Jane Harper

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 3534 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan Australia (May 31, 2016)
  • Publication Date: May 31, 2016
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01B40JHRQ

Synopsis  (Amazon)

WHO REALLY KILLED THE HADLER FAMILY?Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well …

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is
loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds are reopened. For Falk
and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret … A secret Falk thought long-buried … A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface …

Winner of the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript

My Take

Drought in Australia takes its toll in many ways and many believe that Luke Hadler has just snapped under the pressure. When Aaron Falk comes to the town for the funerals, he intends to get away as quickly as possible. But Luke’s parents ask him to try to work out what triggered the murder/suicides, and then Falk meets a local policeman who is having a hard job accepting that Luke Hadler killed his family.

Aaron Falk and his father left the rural Victorian country town after the death of one of Aaron’s friends. The final verdict was that Ellie had actually committed suicide, filling her shoes and pockets with stones, and drowning herself in a local swimming hole. Aaron and his father were questioned in connection with her death and then hounded out of town by Ellie’s father. Now, twenty years on, the old rumours resurface and many townspeople treat Aaron with hostility and suspicion.

This is a really well constructed novel, with a number of credible red herrings, and then a final solution that really comes out of left field.

A good read.

My rating: 4.7

About the author:

Jane Harper has worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in
Australia and the UK. She lives in Melbourne and writes for the Herald Sun, among other publications. Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, The Dry is her first novel with rights sold to over twenty territories.

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT, Emily Maguire

  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 1161 KB
  • Print Length: 316 pages
  • Publisher: Picador Australia (March 22, 2016)
  • Publication Date: March 22, 2016
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01AKXZOS4
  • Author website

Synopsis  (Amazon)

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the small town of Strathdee, the community is stunned and a media storm descends.

Unwillingly thrust into the eye of that storm is Bella’s beloved older sister, Chris, a barmaid at the local pub, whose apparent easygoing nature conceals hard-won wisdom and the kind of street-smarts only experience can bring.

As Chris is plunged into despair and searches for answers, reasons, explanation – anything – that could make even the smallest sense of Bella’s death, her ex-husband, friends and neighbours do their best to support her. But as the days tick by with no arrest,
Chris’s suspicion of those around her grows.

An Isolated Incident is a psychological thriller about everyday violence, the media’s
obsession with pretty dead girls, the grip of grief and the myth of closure, and the difficulties of knowing the difference between a ghost and a memory, between a monster and a man.

My Take

AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is not really about the investigation into the horrific death of Bella Michaels, although that happens in the background for nearly three months with few suspects. It is not really even about Bella herself although we are looking over her shoulder as investigative reporter May Norman tries to understand who Bella was and what might have caused her violent end.

Through the eyes of Chris Rogers, Bella’s older half sister, and May Norman we uncover the nature of the town of Strathdee, a truck stop half way between Sydney and Melbourne. After the first flush of media activity caused by the discovery of Bella’s body the reporters depart but May stays on. She feels that there is more of a story to be had if she can interview a few more residents and then focus on Chris.

The novel has its focus in uncovering the sort of town Strathdee is, the violence that seems to underpin most relationships, the impact of Bella’s death on Chris and also on those who barely knew her, and on May’s own relationships.

There’s plenty to think about in this novel, plenty to talk about in a book group if you are part of one, but be warned, you may find the scenarios and language confronting.

My rating: 4.8

Read another review

About the author
Emily Maguire is the author of the novels An Isolated IncidentFishing for Tigers, Smoke in the Room, The Gospel According to Luke and the international bestseller Taming the Beast. She was named as a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year in 2010 and again in 2013. She is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writer’s Fellowship.

Her non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex + Power + Identity
(2008) is an examination of how the treatment of young women as fragile
and in need of protection can be as objectifying and damaging to them
as pornography and raunch culture. A Young Adult version of this book
titled Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice was published in 2010.
Emily’s articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Observer and The Age.

Review: FRONT PAGE NEWS, Katie Rowney

  • first published by Penguin Australia
  • this edition is a paperback published in May 2016
  • ISBN 978-0-14-379719-7
  • 277 pages

Synopsis (Penguin Australia)

Cadet journalist Stacey McCallaghan is struggling to find anything newsworthy to report on in the small country town of Toomey. Front-page stories consist of the price of cattle and lawn bowls results, and
Stacey spends more time laying out the crossword than covering actual news.

Until the first dead body turns up.

While the local police fumble the investigation, ambitious Stacey is just pleased to
have something other than cattle sales to write about.  Plus, she now has an excuse to spend more time with the arrogantly attractive Detective Scott Fitzgerald. But when Stacey shows up at one crime scene too many, she moves to the top of the most wanted list. Stacey must uncover the truth before anyone else gets hurt – or the police put her behind bars.

Light-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny, this charming novel will have readers falling in love with the surprisingly deadly town of Toomey.

My Take

Stacey McCallaghan is young, inexperienced and a little naive. She seems to have a lot of responsibility in the production of the weekly Toomey Times. and copes with that quite well. Murder is not really her scene but the discovery of a body in a car in a local watering pond brings a frisson of excitement. At first sight it looks as if a gang from a nearby town must be teaching somebody a lesson, and nobody is expecting the next body.

The plot becomes more convoluted and puzzling as there are more murders. Are they connected? Surely so many deaths in such a short time is very unusual for Toomey. The police narrow down their list of suspects and realise that Stacey has been first to the scene at least twice.

I think this novel may go down well with a YA audience, especially young women who can put themselves in Stacey’s place. There is romance and an occasional touch of humour.

My Rating: 3.9

About the author

Katie Rowney started out as a journalist in a small country town and saw her first dead body on her second day on the job. After shifting through several community newspapers and freelancing for Fairfax, she joined the dark side as a media officer for the emergency services. Her job involved everything from evacuating towns during cyclones to trying
to train firefighters not to swear during live to air interviews. She’s currently a senior communications officer at a QLD university, helping engineers and scientists with no social skills share their findings with the world. You can find her on twitter @KatieRowney or online at katierowney.com
FRONT PAGE NEWS is her debut novel.

Review: THE BATTLING PROPHET, Arthur Upfield – audio book

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is on leave, staying with an old friend near Adelaide. Ben Wickham, a meteorologist whose uncannily accurate weather forecasts had helped farmers all over Australia, lived
nearby. Ben died after a three-week drinking binge and a doctor certified death as due to delirium tremens – but Bony’s host insists that whatever Ben died of it wasn’t alcohol…

From Audible

Ben Wickham, a famous meteorologist whose uncannily accurate forecasts have helped famers and graziers all over Australia, has died after a three-week drinking bout.

The doctor certifies that his death was cause by heart failure due to alcoholic poisoning.
But Ben’s neighbour and drinking partner, John Luton, is convinced his
friends didn’t die from too much gin. He manages to lure Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte to his riverside cottage near the South Australian coast, on an unofficial visit for a spot of fishing.

Bony, thinking at first he’s on holiday and paying a casual visit, is intrigued and decides to investigate.

My Take

Weather forecasts are extraordinarily important in the driest continent in the world. Farmers and graziers base their activities on them, but if drought is forecast then they will not re-stock their land, nor will they harrow in preparation for seeding. So lots of people stand to lose income if farming activities don’t occur.

Ben Wickham tried to interest the Australian government in purchasing his weather predictions in advance and, when they rejected him, then approached overseas governments. Since Wickham died lots of people, not all Australian in origin, have become very interested in finding his will, and the books in which he wrote his predictions for future weather. They are all convinced that his best mate John Luton is hiding something. After Luton takes a beating from some outsider Bony realises that some major steps have to be taken. But someone higher up in government wants Bony off the scene and he is peremptorily recalled Queensland, and even escorted to the South Australian border.

A story with quite a bit of outback humour as well as some serious thought. There are some very quirky characters and the author has tried give us some idea of their colloquial language.

Of particular interest to me is that so many of the Bony stories have a link to South Australia. This one appears to be set somewhere near the River Murray. Ironically the year of publication, 1956, is also the year of the flooding of the Murray, in contrast with the drought conditions of the novel.My rating: 4.4

I’ve also read
DEATH OF A SWAGMAN
4.4, THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY
4.0, A MAN OF TWO TRIBES 

Review: MAN OF TWO TRIBES, Arthur Upfield – audio book

Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

With two camels and a dog, Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte sets off across southern Australia’s Nullarbor Plain in search of a missing
woman. He finds much more than he bargained for. Set in some of the most mysterious and unforgiving territory in the world – the Australian
desert – Man of Two Tribes is vintage Upfield.

From Audible:

Myra Thomas, accused of murdering her philandering husband, is foundnot guilty by a sympathetic jury. But while travelling from Adelaide toPerth on the Transcontinental Railway express, she mysteriously disappears during the overnight journey across the vast, featureless desert.
Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte takes the case and
sets off to search for her over the flat wasteland of the Nullabor
Plain. At first it seems that the harsh environment will give him no clues, but Bony soon finds more than he bargained for? landing himself in a bigger mystery, and a fight for survival…

My TakeThe Woomera Rocket Range, a collaborative effort between a number of International groups including the British and Australia, began immediately after World War II in 1946, with a joint project running until 1960. It is located in north-west South Australia, about 500 km north west of Adelaide. British nuclear tests at Maralinga, a series of seven nuclear tests were conducted within the Woomera area between 1955 and 1963. More recently, the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, a detention centre,  opened nearby in 1999 and operated until 2003.

The focus in the opening pages of the story is a woman, recently acquitted of murder, who has disappeared without trace from the East-West railway travelling from Adelaide to Western Australia. There is some indication that she may have connections with international espionage and Bony is sent out on an undercover mission to see if he can locate her.

There are various Aboriginal legends associated with the Australian outback but here Upfield tells one about a monster, maybe a version of the Rainbow Snake, supposedly occupying the underground limestone caverns of the Nullarbor Plain which the train line traverses. This has the effect of both deterring aboriginal trackers from looking too closely for the missing woman, and also provides an explanation of any strange noises heard at night.

Bony of course is the “man of two tribes”, being a half-caste aborigine, but his Queensland tribe has little in common with the Aboriginal people living on the Nullarbor, apart from the markings on his body that show he is a warrior of some note. At the same time he is a very articulate person, highly qualified with a university degree, and a reputation for never failing to successfully conclude a case.

An interesting story but I did feel that it stretched the bounds of credibility. Basing the story around the Nullarbor Plain and Woomera does show how in touch with current events Upfield was. At the time of publication 1956, 8 years before his death, he was 66 years old and there would be another 8 Bony novels.

My rating: 4.0

I’ve also read
DEATH OF A SWAGMAN
4.4, THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY

Review: COMFORT ZONE by Lindsay Tanner

ComfortZoneTannerThese days I can count on one hand the number of politicians of any political persuasion I admire but former federal Finance Minister and ALP stalwart Lindsay Tanner makes the cut. Which explains why I was prompted to select his first foray into fiction writing for my book club to read this month. Something I now feel the urge to apologise for. I thought I didn’t have any expectations of the book because I didn’t know anything of the story before selecting it but realise now I had expectations of Tanner. He was a thoughtful politician and has demonstrated a capacity for nuanced communication of difficult issues in his public life and I anticipated that skill would be evident in his fiction writing. Alas…

Set in Melbourne with much of the action taking place within the boundaries of the inner city electorate Tanner served for seven years, COMFORT ZONE is primarily the story of Jack Van Duyn. Jack is a loser. If you forget for a moment that Jack is a loser you will be reminded. Either he will say it himself, someone will say it of him or his many failings will be repeated. I ran out of sticky notes in identifying all the times the book mentions Jack’s schmuck status but here are a few

Jack Van Duyn didn’t exactly cut an impressive figure. He was quite tall, but a gently protruding potbelly was accentuated by Australia’s least imposing set of shoulders.

and

Underneath Jack’s crusty exterior lay a dank, stagnant pool of loneliness that was slowly consuming him.

and

Jack’s world was full of pessimism, low expectations and failure. Missing out was normal. People like him were always at the end of the queue.

I won’t bore you with the dozens more similar quotes I could include. I know I was meant to be enchanted by the fact that over the course of the book Jack confounds his loser status by behaving against type but this transformation would have been a lot more intriguing if any level of subtlety had been applied to it.

Jack is a cabbie. One day as he is about to pick up a fare he notices two young African boys being assaulted by young men. On his own Jack would probably have done nothing but his would-be-passenger urges Jack to join him in rescuing the boys. The situation is resolved between our two heroes and a couple of police constables and that should have been the end of it. But Jack becomes smitten with the boys’ mother, single Somali mum Farhia Mohammed, and when he finds a book Farhia must have dropped seizes the opportunity to reconnect with her. Jack subsequently becomes involved in his passenger’s botched drug deal, a fight within the Somali community and soon has both ASIO and mysterious drug kingpins on his tail.

Alas that summary makes the story sound more interesting than it actually was. Although it’s a quick and short read at 240 pages it doesn’t reach any dramatic or comedic heights, is entirely predictable and almost entirely unbelievable. That wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if the attendant social commentary had been engaging but that too was laid on with an over-sized trowel rather than the artist’s brush I might have hoped for. To save you the trouble of finding our for yourself what it boils down to is this: people, even people who are different from us, are generally OK if you take the time to get to know them.

Groan.

I was going to say that if COMFORT ZONE had been written by someone else my reaction to it might have been different as I wouldn’t have had prior expectations of its author. But I am pretty confident the book would never have been published without ‘former federal government minister’ attached to the author’s name. So I think I was justified in having an expectation that the book would use Tanner’s relatively rare experiences to offer genuine insight into the complexities of modern inner city life rather than the thinly veiled lament about Green voters spoiling a once wondrous place (for non Australians following along Tanner’s former seat has been in the hands of the Australian Greens since 2010). When combined with overly stereotypical characterisations and some truly clunky dialogue I really could give a one word review: disappointing.

It seems my co-host here at Fair Dinkum Crime and fellow book club member liked the book more than I did so perhaps I won’t have to grovel too much about my choice

Publisher: Scribe [2016]
ISBN: 9781925321029
Length: 240 pages
Format: paperback

Review: AN ISOLATED INCIDENT by Emily Maguire

AnIsolatedIncidentMaguireIf I tell you AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is about the death of a beautiful young, female aged care worker in a small country town you’ll think you know at least a little about where the book will go. But you don’t. the book subverts just about every stereotype and trope of the genre. Brilliantly.

What I found most noticeable about AN ISOLATED INCIDENT is what isn’t there.

Firstly the killer is not present at all in this book. I’m not talking about whether the identity of the killer is or isn’t revealed but the book is not about that person. That bloke (because let’s be frank when a young woman is brutally murdered the odds are astronomically high that her killer will be male) doesn’t get italicised passages from his point of view or consideration of his motivations. Or Excuses. The why of the crime is present only in the subtext: men kill women, all too bloody frequently, because they can.

Another traditional element missing from the book is the police perspective. Of course there are police officers and various plot points in which one or more of them is central but we do not spend any time seeing things from their point of view and we do not know if any of them are haunted by the death and the subsequent investigation. This is not their story either.

In a way the book isn’t even about Bella Michaels – the young woman who has been murdered.

Instead the book is about the aftermath of her death, primarily about the people who are affected by it. The most important of these people is Bella’s older sister Chris who experiences an almost unsurvivable grief. Not ‘just’ the grief that comes with a loved one dying horrifically and much, much too early. But the dual complications that come with the knowledge that someone caused that death and is still going about their lives and that because Bella’s death is so public other people – most of whom didn’t even know Bella – feel some kind of ownership of her. And her death. Chris’ descent into a form of madness as she grasps the enormity of her new reality is one of the most compelling characterisations I have ever read. As a divorced barmaid and amateur prostitute Chris is an atypical heroine but I defy even the most uncharitable of readers not to feel entirely sympathetic towards her.

One of the people who never knew Bella but who is affected by her death is May Norman. Suffering an ignoble relationship breakup she heads to the fictional town of Strathdee – ostensibly half-way between Sydney and Melbourne – to put some distance between herself and her lover as well as to take on her first big crime reporting assignment. It’s what she’s always wanted. Isn’t it? Initially May is a typically dogged yet somewhat insensitive journalist but finds herself increasingly invested in ensuring that the truth of Bella’s life and the impact of her death on those who loved her is meaningfully presented to the world.

Maguire lets Chris narrate most of this story, honestly and directly (she is even allowed to break the literary equivalent of the fourth wall occasionally) which helps the reader to develop a real understanding of all that Chris is going through. Though there is humour too as evidenced by Chris’ physical description of her sister

Bella was, if I’m being honest, Strathdee-pretty. I was always telling her she could be a model if she wanted, and I still think that was true, but it’d modelling in the Kmart catalogue not Vogue or anything. I’m not putting her down. Like I said, she was the most beautiful thing anyone around here had ever seen in the flesh, but she was five foot nothing in high heels and had a size 10 arse on a size 6 body.

But it is through Chris’ response to the public appropriation of Bella’s death that we start to really see how the situation is impacting on Chris. When there is a ‘march for Bella’ in Sydney – some six hours drive away from where she lived and died – Chris is angry

…Look, for the record I believe they were sad and scared. But that march was about them, for them. That’s fine. Whatever gets you through this life. But they shouldn’t have pretended it was for Bella. How could it have been? They had no memories of her to celebrate, no way of just what it was the world lost when she died. And the coverage that thing got, well, it made people – all the goddam compassionate, sad people out there – feel like something had been done, some kind of justice. It made a lot of those nice ladies and men marching through Sydney feel better about what had happened and that was the opposite of what was needed. We needed rage and heartbreak, we needed the whole country to be unable to sleep, to eat, to move on with their lives until the men who did this were found. Instead we got warm feelings about community and sweet quotes about paying tribute. They got peace and we – Bella and me – got jack-fucking-shit.

There is more. Much more about the way in which these kinds of deaths are reported by the media and picked over by the rest of us.

Another subversion of the genre is in the book’s approach to violence. We know Bella’s death was violent but whatever brutalities she endured are not recounted. Chris knows what they are – they infuse her thoughts – but she doesn’t pass them on. And even when she looks at leaked photographs of Bella’s body posted online we don’t learn the details from May either. Chris knows it’s what people want – details and the gorier the better – but Maguire is determined we won’t have them.

I’ve only scratched the surface of AN ISOLATED INCIDENT both in this review and in my own thinking. I suppose that is as it should be given the book subverts just about every aspect of the crime genre while forcing readers to consider their own responses to real world incidents of the type it depicts. Being confronted in this way should not be easily forgotten. So if you like your reading thought-provoking and don’t mind keeping company with fictional people long after you’ve closed the back cover of their stories then I highly recommend AN ISOLATED INCIDENT.


AWW2016This is the 8th book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2016]
ISBN: 9781743538579
Length: 343 pages
Format: paperback