Review: THE TWISTED KNOT by J.M. Peace

Having been very impressed with J.M. Peace’s debut novel A TIME TO RUN, I approached THE TWISTED KNOT with that mixture of anticipation and worry that always surrounds second books. Happily, the worry was misplaced.

Somewhat paradoxically one of the things that I enjoyed most about this book is that it is not all that similar to its predecessor. The author’s talent is still on show and the central character from the first, police constable Sammi Willis, is also at the heart of this one but there is never any signs of this becoming the first in a line of clones that can often, understandably but annoyingly, follow a successful debut. This is different in pacing, the kind of story it tells and in its overall sensibility. It’s still very, very good though; no worrying necessary.

Here Sammi is still recovering from the events depicted in the first novel. Physically she’s OK but not quite mentally ready to return to full duties yet so she’s working on the front counter of the police station in the rural Queensland town of Angel’s Crossing. Which is where she first learns that townspeople are angry. A man accused of being a pedophile in the town some years ago is apparently ‘at it’ again. He was not convicted last time and locals are determined that this time there will be justice, even if they have to deliver it themselves. All Sammi and her colleagues have to go on is unsubstantiated rumours, no victim has come forward. And Sammi’s superior officers make themselves scarce rather than face the angry mob that confronts Sammi. What are they hiding?

It’s difficult to talk about the many fine attributes of this book without spoiling its plot but I will say the story is a ripper. It’s not the same kind of intense, frightening story the first book told but it’s equally compelling and suspenseful. Here there are layers of secrets being kept by many locals and the way these are revealed keeps readers guessing right to the end. There’s more complexity here too because it’s not quite so clear in depicting who is and who isn’t doing the right thing. Because there’s what’s legal and then there’s what’s right and they’re not always the same thing. At least not for some of the residents of Angel’s Crossing. It’s quite thought-provoking at times in the way it makes the reader contemplate what they might do when faced with some of the scenarios depicted in the book.

Peace is a serving police officer (using a pseudonym) so it’s not surprising that the way the various aspects of police work and ‘the life’ are shown have a real ring of authenticity to them. The different types of personality attracted to the work are on show as are the variety of elements of the job. Although they do exist it’s not all car chases and shoot outs and Peace does well in showing the whole job without slowing the book down or making it dull. She also does well at showing the limitations of the legal system and the frustrations that result for both officers and the public.

The character development is well done too. Sammi’s struggles to overcome the mental issues which arose after she was chased by a serial killer are problematic but no so debilitating they threaten to destroy her. It must be a difficult balance to achieve in trying to depict such a thing sensitively and realistically. There are a few hurdles in her personal life too but these are also shown in a believable, balanced way. The townspeople who are impacted by the possible resurgence of the pedophile activity are also well drawn. Their anger and desire to take matters into their own hands are entirely credible.

All in all then another terrific read from J.M. Peace. I am especially pleased when authors try new things and take some risks with their storytelling. Even if it doesn’t always work I’d rather this than a clone any day. But, in this instance at least, Peace’s change of pace and tone work very well, leaving me keen to see what she does next.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 5th book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Pan Macmillian, 2016
ISBN: 9781743538678
Length: 303 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: I bought it

Review: CRIMSON LAKE by Candice Fox

I’m not sure if it’s a standalone novel or the start of a new series but either way Candice Fox’s CRIMSON LAKE is determined to be memorable. Every one of its 389 pages is packed with people committing crimes, investigating crimes or trying to prove their own innocence of crimes they’ve been accused of.

Most of the story is told from Ted Conkaffey’s point of view. When we meet him Ted is living a kind of half-life after having spent 8 months on remand for the rape and attempted murder of a young girl. His case was dropped for lack of evidence not because there is any other viable suspect and the charges can be reactivated at any time. Just about everyone – including Ted’s former colleagues in the police force, his ex wife and the general public – believe him guilty despite his consistent claims of innocence. So Ted has made his way to far north Queensland and gone to ground. Crimson Lake is the sort of place where people can and do hide from their pasts. But even this place may not be up to the task of hiding from determined vigilantes (some of whom wear a uniform) a man the whole world thinks of as a guilty-but-not-convicted paedophile.

Ted is put in contact with Amanda Pharrell, the region’s lone private investigator. Amanda is afraid of cars, loves to speak in rhymes and spent 10 years in prison for the murder of a fellow teenager. She is investigating the disappearance of celebrated local author Jack Scully who, it seems, may have been taken by a crocodile. His wife wants proof that he’s really dead and that he didn’t commit suicide.

The pair form a friendship of sorts as they look into the author’s deranged fans and secret life for clues to his disappearance. The two outsiders develop a genuine, if prickly, care for each other but their interactions are charged with too much dark humour to stray into mushy territory. Which is all for the best in my opinion and this relationship is one of the book’s strengths. Other characters – good guys and bad ones – are also well drawn.

Although very complicated (seriously I’ve only skimmed a portion of the book’s happenings here) the disparate strands of storyline are not difficult to follow and for those who like their crime fiction packed with action and surprising twists look no further. The book stretched the bounds of credibility at times for me as so many elements of what happened to Ted, Amanda and Jack were the result of the kinds of extremes of human behaviour that I struggled to believe would all coalesce around such a small group of people in such a small place. But the book is an old-fashioned romp of a tale about people I had grown to care about and I will freely admit to staying up way past my bedtime to find out how CRIMSON LAKE was all going to end. Next-day drowsiness is the sign of a superior reading experience.


aww2017-badgeThis is the 3rd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth 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: Penguin [2017]
ISBN: 9780143781905
Length: 389 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: Borrowed from the library

Review: VANISHING POINT by Pat Flower

For this month’s Crimes of the Century read I dived into little-known Australian author Pat Flower’s 1975 novel VANISHING POINT which means the book also counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge obligations.

vanishingpointflowerThe edition of VANISHING POINT I read was published in the 1990’s as the first of a local publisher’s series of publications aiming to breathe new life into forgotten Australian crime stories. A noble aim indeed (and many of the later instalments are wonderful reads) but I’m finding it hard to believe it set the series off with a bang. If I had to describe the book in a single word it would be languid, which doesn’t sit well with the blurb’s claims of it being a ‘claustrophobic thriller’. Claustrophobic yes; thrilling not so much.

The book’s structure appears to take shape from its author’s other life as a stage and screen writer, having three distinct acts. In the first act Sydney couple Geraldine and Noel take a driving and camping holiday to Far North Queensland with some acquaintances. The trip is not a success. In the second act the pair are back in Sydney and attempting to get life back to normal. The final act returns us all to the monotony of driving and camping in the humid north. There are less than a handful of dramatic incidents in all three acts combined. This doesn’t make the book terrible – as a portrait of one human’s madness it’s quite exquisite – but it is a bit slow and I can’t imagine it would attract a wide audience.

VANISHING POINT is less a story and more a study of Geraldine’s seriously skewed inner life. Geraldine doesn’t really do anything. She doesn’t work, she has no kids, she doesn’t belong to groups or do charity work or have any friends. At home she lies by the pool all day – not even a book in her hand – and on the camping trips she sits and stares and thinks and keeps herself as distant as possible from her travelling companions. The only thing she actively does is obsess, mostly about her husband. She wants always to be near him, if not touching him then with him. She has a jealous hatred of anyone else who spends time with him – business partner, friend, possible lover – and she smothers him. Of course she doesn’t see it as smothering but even through the lens of Geraldine’s view of the world – hardly an unbiased one – we can see that Noel is suffering. Geraldine is disdainful of almost everyone else she comes across. She can barely remember people’s names they are so insignificant. Even the numerous men she assumes to be in love with her have a sort of shimmering, semi-transparent quality to them.

In an Afterword this edition’s editors quote the author as having said

…Why murder? I’m absorbed in character, not in murder. In ordinary people a bit round the bend. I like to follow the effects on my characters of heredity, environment and circumstance, and reveal in action, reaction and interaction the instability which might in real life go unnoticed but in my books is fatal. For my crackpots murder is the only way out.

And in VANISHING POINT she does exactly this. Well almost. I’d have liked to know a little more about Geraldine’s past…to glean some more about why her psyche was so damaged. There is a hint of it (don’t blink, you’ll miss it) but it doesn’t explain everything. Although perhaps that’s the point? Sometimes people are just ‘crackpots’ and there really isn’t a rational explanation for their behaviour? However true that may be it’s not a notion that I’m comfortable with which perhaps explains why I struggled with the book in parts. My fault not the author’s then.

Because the book is so much about Geraldine’s inner life there really isn’t much to set it in 1975 versus any other time in history. There’s no hint of the tumultuous 70’s taking place outside Geraldine’s head (one character wearing a kaftan is the only concrete reference to the decade I noticed). The only thought that struck me was that, being a book about an obsessive, controlling woman who poses a danger to her domestic partner, the book might struggle to get published today? I don’t know this to be true of course, it’s just a thought, but it seems to me that these days stories about obsession and control have to put the male in the dangerous role. Has that particular pendulum swung irreversibly?

VANISHING POINT is well written and does exactly what the author set out to do. I found it a bit slow going but admit that’s likely down to my liking for more of a balance between action and introspection. And my discomfort over the novel’s premise – that sometimes irrational, horrendous behaviour might have no explanation – can’t really be considered a criticism of the book.


AWW2016This is book 17.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.


Publisher: This edition Wakefield Press 1993, original edition 1975
ISBN: 1862542929
Length: 200 pages
Format: Paperback

Review: DEADLY DIPLOMACY by Jean Harrod

DeadlyDiplomacyHarrodWhere she has followed the dictum to ‘write what you know’ Harrod’s efforts in DEADLY DIPLOMACY are successful. Her many years in the diplomatic service lends authenticity to the book’s depiction of British diplomat Jessica Turner’s efforts to support the sister of a British women who is murdered in Queensland. The victim was involved with a Very Important international trade deal so as well as trying to alleviate the fears of the victim’s paranoid sister Turner must liaise with harried local police and juggle strained high level relationships between private and public organisations. When allegations of corruption and the death of a Federal politician form part of this narrative’s mix, things really do get interesting for Turner and, by extension, the reader.

Other elements of the novel were, for me, less successful. The most significant of these was the high body count and violence which turned what could have been a thoughtful story into a bloodbath of the type that doesn’t interest me terribly much. I was surprised to see the Sydney Morning Herald describe the book as a ‘light mystery’ given the number of brutal killings, including a completely pointless (story wise) graphic murder of a teenage girl. The fact that these crimes are being committed by one of the ‘crazed chap who loves killing‘ type of characters makes it worse for me. I accept that nature (or nurture?) throws up one of these nutters every now and then in the real world but not nearly as often as this kind of thriller would have me believe. And regardless of their epidemiological likelihood they are boring. A person who kills because he (or she) likes to kill offers little of interest to a reader looking for character development and motivation.

The writing itself is also awkward at times. This is a plot driven book with lots of dialogue to move things along and quite a bit of that dialogue doesn’t ring true. It’s fair enough that Jessica Tuner and the victim’s sister – both English women who have only been in Australia a short time – are not attuned to local speech patterns and terminology but the rest of the characters are meant to be locals. I can’t imagine too many Australians wouldn’t twig early on that this is a book written by an outsider (and one with a different take on social class than most Aussies) but I suppose no one else will know or care. I see that the author’s second book takes Jessica Turner to a different setting and I imagine I won’t know enough about that place to be able to tell if the dialogue is equally out of place so perhaps this really doesn’t matter much in the big scheme of things.

The story itself rips along and engages the reader in wanting to learn the reasons for its events and whether or not the victim’s diary will reveal enough secrets to warrant the killing spree its existence has caused. With the violence level dialed down a couple of notches I could easily be persuaded to check back with Jessica Turner and the world of international diplomacy which does seem like fertile ground for great yarns.


Publisher: York Authors Coffee Shop [2015]
ISBN: 9780992997137
Length: 329 pages
Format: paperback
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

 

Review: TIME TO RUN, J.M. Peace

  • review copy supplied to me by publisher, Pan Macmillan Australia
  • ISBN 978-1-74353-786-2
  • published July 2015
  • 228 pages
  • Kindle version available from Amazon

Synopsis (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The hunt is on

A GRUESOME GAME

A madman is kidnapping women to hunt them for sport.

A FRANTIC SEARCH

Detective Janine Postlewaite leads the investigation into the
disappearance of Samantha Willis, determined not to let another innocent
die on her watch.

A SHOCKING TWIST
The killer’s newest prey isn’t like the others. Sammi is a cop. And she refuses to be his victim.

A RUN FOR YOUR LIFE

A stunning, tautly written thriller from police officer turned writer, J.M. Peace.

My Take:

My feeling is the plot of this novel relies heavily on stories from true crime such as the Ivan Milat murders. Certainly that reinforces in my mind that events such as those described in this piece of fiction can actually happen.
I don’t mean to detract from the good job the author has done with plot and with character development. I was struck also by the way the tension ratchets up in the second half of the novel. We know that Sammi is racing against time for her life.

This is an impressive debut title.

My rating:  4.5

About the author
J.M. Peace is a serving police officer who would rather be writing about
policing. Over the past 15 years, she has served throughout south-east
Queensland in a variety of different capacities. Her voice of authority
shines through in her debut crime thriller, A Time To Run.
J.M. Peace she has also written various short stories, blogs regularly
about policing and writing and is currently working on her second novel.
JM lives on the Sunshine Coast, juggling writing and police work with
raising two kids along with her partner. She blogs at http://www.jmpeace.com.

Review: DOUBLE MADNESS by Caroline De Costa

DoubleMadnessDeCostaIn the aftermath of 2011’s Cyclone Yasi a woman’s body is found in Far North Queensland’s remote wilderness. She has been tied in position with silk scarves and the expensive high heels she is wearing indicate she was unlikely to have made her own way to the location. But there is no obvious cause of death and with no missing persons reports matching the woman’s description it takes Cairns police detective Cass Diamond and her colleagues some time to first identify the woman and then piece together the circumstances that led to her death.

There is a lot to like about this debut novel. The standout element is probably the setting – both in terms of geography and social context. The success of this aspect of the novel no doubt draws on De Costa’s own experiences as a professor at the School of Medicine at James Cook University which allow her to depict Cairns and its surrounds very realistically. Opening the novel with events taking place amid a real recent cyclone quickly allows the reader to imagine themselves in the setting, and De Costa follows up with rich detail of how the lives of the relatively closed medical profession all interact to provide both an interesting community and a suspect pool.

Often when characters of minority backgrounds are depicted in popular culture the entire focus is on the element that marks them out as ‘different’. It is as if every thought or line of dialogue the person has is invisibly prefaced by the sentiment “As a disabled/Aboriginal/gay person I feel/think…”  I don’t know whether it was deliberate or not but I loved the fact that Cass Diamond, who is Aboriginal, is not depicted in this way. When it is natural as part of the story reference is made to Cass’ cultural background but there are plenty of times when she is simply a mum, a cop or a friend experiencing things in the same way as any other mum, cop or friend might do. Early on I found myself thinking ‘Hallelujah this is not going to be one of those books in which everything that happens has some kind of special meaning because Cass is Aboriginal‘. Cass is a terrifically engaging character displaying a great mix of humour, determination and intelligence and I would be happy to see more of her in the future.

The novel takes its name from the psychosis which two of its characters display. We learn something about this via the police investigation as the life of the victim is slowly fleshed out, but there’s also a secondary narrative that provides glimpses of the lives of the various people who have interacted with the central couple. This is a complex structure but De Costa pulls it off, although there are one or two superfluous interludes that indicate the novel was trying a bit too hard to provide a large pool of potential culprits.  Or perhaps I am being unfairly harsh because my aging brain found it a tad difficult to keep track of the large cast, almost all of whom were doctors.

The novel explores several themes with a light but deft touch, the most interesting of these to me being the natural human reaction to certain kinds of crime. Without giving too much away much of the core case is revealed to revolve around numerous people being blackmailed, essentially for having sex with someone they ought not to have been having sex with. The novel poses the notion that the average person is likely to feel sympathy for the blackmail victim, even when the behaviour for which that person was being blackmailed might normally be considered immoral. I found this an interesting concept to ponder and wondered if it is true whether it is a relatively recent phenomenon and whether it is the same across different cultures. I suppose these thoughts were prompted by the juxtaposition of me reading this novel  in the aftermath of the Ashley Madison hacking incident. At least some of the social media commentary arising from this sordid tale lead me to believe that not everyone’s sympathies might lie with the blackmail victims as proposed in DOUBLE MADNESS but I enjoyed the topical nature of the theme and the fact it gave me issues to think about at my leisure.

I was a little wary at the outset of this novel given ‘woman tied up and left for dead’ is a somewhat tired trope in the crime genre but De Costa takes the story somewhere very different from the run-of-the-mill slasher nonsense. It’s a fabulously Australian story with an engaging protagonist and remained completely compelling even when I realised I didn’t much care for the murder victim (yes I know that reveals rather a lot about my own personality but it can’t be helped, I struggle to care about the deaths of some fictional people). Top stuff.


aww-badge-2015This is the 11th book I’ve reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge (though I’ve 14 books). Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself


Publisher: Margaret River Press [2015]
ISBN: 9780987561564
Length: 357 pages
Format: paperback
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: A TIME TO RUN by J.M. Peace

ATimeToRunPeaceFrontIt would be impossible for any Australian reader not to think of the backpacker murders when embarking on A TIME TO RUN. But if, like me, you think you are ‘over’ serial killer plots I would urge you to reconsider. It is a seriously good read.

The only thing I didn’t much like about my copy was the blurb but, as is my habit these days, I didn’t read that until I’d finished the book so my reading experience wasn’t spoiled as yours might be if you read it first. The only thing I think you need to know about the story itself is that it involves a young woman, Sammi, who is kidnapped at the end of a night out. We then follow what happens to Sammi in tandem with the unfolding police investigation into her disappearance.

A TIME TO RUN is the most perfectly paced novel I have read in a very long time. Seriously, it’s perfect. There’s not a wasted word, it never drags, action unfolds quickly enough to keep the reader from wanting to put the book down at any point (I gobbled it up in a single sitting) but not so fast that you feel like the author is trying to distract you from some failing of the book. I think I had forgotten the delight of reading a truly well-paced story because it’s a pretty rare thing in these days of endless exposition and unnecessary filler content. The book has half the pages of many modern thrillers but packs twice the dramatic punch.

For those still wary of reading another book about a serial killer perhaps I can put your mind at rest by telling you that this is not one of those books that borders on celebrating the psychopath or turning him into a star. There are, thankfully, no italicised passages of his inner thoughts. Nor is he a genius of such superior intelligence to the plodding coppers that there is doubt he can ever be captured. He is just a man. A rotten-to-the-core man. We see enough of him and his actions to understand this but the book doesn’t wallow in his degrading behaviour and violence. He is not the centre of attention. The real stars of this book are the victim and the policewoman who becomes determined to find her. I particularly liked the fact that Sammi is depicted as being a random victim through no fault of her own – there is no victim blaming here. She’s also pretty darned feisty. Despite her circumstances she finds some inner strength (and a little help from another realm) with which to attempt to outwit her captor but all her actions – her successes, her mistakes and the times when she is sure she will die – are within the bounds of credibility. Janine Postlewaite is the Detective who is alerted early to Sammi’s possible disappearance. She takes speedy action to treat the case seriously – based in part on a previous experience where a delay in starting the process led to a bad outcome for another missing person – and she is persistent and thorough and smart and dedicated. If anyone you loved went missing Janine is the kind of cop you’d pray was assigned to the case.

J.M. Peace has been a police officer in Queensland for 15 years and is still serving. This experience shows, but lightly. By that I mean she hasn’t drowned the story with fascinating but ultimately pointless insider knowledge of ‘the business’ but she has given the story an underlying authenticity. The way that evidence is identified, linkages between disparate pieces of information are made, cooperation between different branches of the police service happens all pass the truthiness test and help the reader become gripped by Sammi’s plight.

So even if the phrase Wolf Creek-style killer turns you off (as it did me when I spied it on the publicity material) I’d recommend setting aside your prejudices and give this book a go. It’s got a great Australian feel to it (so many of the so-called Australian thrillers that pass my eyes make it seem like we are the fifty-somethingth state of America), rips along at just the right pace and if it doesn’t have you sitting on the edge of your seat then there’s something wrong with you, not the book. I notice that in her acknowledgements J.M. Peace thanks her editor and I’ll second that thought. While it’s clear that Peace herself is very talented (this is a debut novel!) it’s also evident that the final product has been carefully crafted from its manuscript stage and when that process is done well it can never be the work of one person. My congratulations and gratitude to everyone involved.


aww-badge-2015This is the ninth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself


Publisher: Pan Macmillan [2015]
ISBN: 9781743537862
Length: 229 pages
Format: paperback
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: THE LOST SWIMMER, Ann Turner

Synopsis (Net Galley)

Rebecca Wilding, an archaeology professor, traces the past for a living.

But suddenly, truth and certainty are turning against her. Rebecca is accused of serious fraud, and   worse, she suspects – she knows – that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair.

Desperate to find answers, Rebecca leaves with Stephen for Greece, Italy and
Paris, where she can uncover the conspiracy against her, and hopefully win
Stephen back to her side, where he belongs. There’s too much at stake – her
love, her work, her family.

But on the idyllic Amalfi Coast, Stephen goes swimming and doesn’t come back.

In a swirling daze of panic and fear, Rebecca is dealt with fresh allegations.
And with time against her, she must uncover the dark secrets that stand between
her and Stephen, and the deceit that has chased her halfway around the world.

My Take:

Rebecca Wilding is having a tough time at Coast University, particularly with the Dean of the Arts faculty, Professor Priscilla Chiton, who seems determined to make her life hell. Priscilla used to be a friend, but now Rebecca suspects she is having an affair with her husband Stephen, Professor of Economics. Rebecca also suspects that Stephen may be dabbling on the stock market again.

Suddenly things start to go very wrong when accounting irregularities crop up and Rebecca is accused of siphoning university funds into her own accounts.

There were some heart stopping moments in this thriller, particularly when they are driving a red sports car up a narrow road on the Amalfi Coast.

Stephen’s disappearance leads to Rebecca becoming a chief suspect for his possible murder, and she goes on the run from the police, attempting to track him down in Paris, where she thinks he is meeting up with Priscilla.

A good read: a debut novel from a female Australian author.

My rating: 4.4

About the author (publisher)

Ann Turner is an award-winning screenwriter and director, avid reader, and
history lover. She is drawn to salt-sprayed coasts, luminous landscapes,
and the people who inhabit them all over the world. She is a passionate
gardener. Her films include the historical feature Celia starring
Rebecca Smart—which Time Out listed as one of the fifty greatest
directorial debuts of all time, Hammers Over The Anvil starring Russell
Crowe and Charlotte Rampling, and the psychological thriller
Irresistible starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, and Emily Blunt. Ann
has lectured in film at the Victorian College of the Arts. Returning to
her first love, the written word, in her debut novel The Lost Swimmer
Ann explores themes of love, trust and the dark side of relationships.
She is currently working on her second novel, Out of the Ice, a mystery
thriller set in Antarctica. Ann was born in Adelaide and lives in
Victoria.

Review: WINGS ABOVE THE DIAMANTINA by Arthur Upfield

WingsAboveTheDiamantinaUpfieldI enjoy participating in the Past Offences monthly classics challenge to read a book from the nominated year but am rarely able to track down an Australian title in time. Happily for 1936 there was a relatively new narration of Arthur Upfield’s eighth novel* available for my ears.

A reviewer’s caveat: When I first started reading crime fiction seriously as an adult I naturally looked for local authors and it wasn’t long before I found an Arthur Upfield novel but I have to admit I didn’t read many. Partly this is because they are at heart not my thing (my younger self’s crass summing would have been they consist mostly of country people banging on about boring country people stuff). But partly it is also because they make for uncomfortable reading. Although Bony is depicted with as much intelligence and crime-solving skill as any of his worldwide fictional counterparts, some of the attitudes he encounters – the thoughts and feelings expressed by many of the white characters towards any of the books’ Aboriginal characters – are awfully bigoted. My younger self was quite OK with leaving the past behind and believing (hoping?) we’d all moved on a long way from that sort of thing. As well as being a whole lot less naive, older me is able to place the novels in context a bit better and I can deal more philosophically with the wincing that the attitudes induce. Though as there are still a lot of country people banging on about country people stuff the novels are probably never going to count amongst my favourites.

On to the actual review: A small plane is found abandoned in remote Queensland. There is no sign of a pilot but a young woman, who appears to be in a coma, is found within. She is removed and taken to a nearby station (similar to an American ranch) where she is looked after by the owner’s daughter though she fails to recover and hovers near death. Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the part Aboriginal, part white policeman known to all as Bony who has developed a reputation for solving mysteries of the outback, is called in on the case and must act with unusual urgency if he is to provide information to aid the young woman’s recovery as well as catch the culprit. The fact that the plane has been all but destroyed by fire before Bony can inspect it adds to the mystery and results in Bony, and two local Aboriginal men, having to use all the tracking skills at their disposal.

The Diamantina River today

The Diamantina River today

Even today the far western Queensland location in which the events of this book take place provides one of the most isolated inhabited spots in the world and WINGS ABOVE THE DIAMANTINA takes full advantage of this unusual setting. Distances are vast, people are of necessity self-reliant and mother nature has a way of letting them know that even if they think they know what they’re doing she can always surprise them. It’s a toss up whether the cloying sand cloud scenario that develops at the novel’s half-way point or the the dramatic rain storm that occurs near the end is the most memorable natural phenomenon but I bet most readers remember at least one long after the novel is over. As far as the book’s setting in time goes there are plenty of things which identify it as being between the wars but in a way the remoteness of the location makes the novel seem less dated than it otherwise might. Even with modern communications and technology remote Australia is still a pretty inhospitable place and it is not too hard to imagine a similar kind of story unfolding today.

Aside from the unusual setting the book is really a classic whodunnit; almost an outback version of the country house mystery (though not all the potential suspects are in the one house they are all within the same few miles). The scene is laid – and possible culprits identified – in the first few chapters and then our protagonist enters proceedings. Bony is introduced when he arrives at the local policeman’s official residence and interrupts the completion of some paperwork. When ready, Sergeant Cox raises his head from his desk to see

“…a man of medium height and build dressed in a light grey tweed. His tie matched his shirt and so did the soft felt hat now resting on the edge of the writing table. The visitor’s face was turned downwards to the busy fingers engaged in making a cigarette and with no little astonishment the sergeant noticed that the man’s hair was fine and straight and black and that his skin was dark brown. And then he was gazing into a pair of bright blue eyes regarding him with a smile”

Almost all of Bony’s first encounters – either in this book or others – involve some form of astonishment on the part of those he is meeting for the first time. I can’t help but wonder if such a man had existed in real life he could have been quite so jovially accepting of other people’s low expectations of him as Bony is depicted as being. For all his unique qualities though Bony is at heart very similar to the other crime solvers that populate this era’s whodunnits – Poirot et al – in that it is his particular intelligence and way of seeing the world that allows him to solve the puzzles others cannot.

For me the plot of this novel was its weakest element. Some of it is annoyingly blokey (there is a thread in which a chap falls in love with the comatose woman which I found truly creepy) and I found my mind wavering a little during some of the minutiae of the investigation. It relied on a visual imagery of relative distances between various locations I couldn’t quite imagine and was heavy on the detail for some things I couldn’t summon much interest in (I wonder if any of the physical versions of the book have a map, it would definitely benefit from one). Perhaps I am truly gruesome enough to require a dead body for my crime reading senses to be completely engaged?

That said I did enjoy the novel much more than I thought I would based on my younger self’s reading of other Upfield books. The author’s genuine affection for his adopted country (he was born in England and moved here at the age of 20) is obvious, though perhaps he owes his his unusually (for the time) enlightened attitude towards our indigenous people to the fact he was not Australian by birth? Regardless of how it was developed it is clear from the warmth and realism with which he depicts them that he has met and grown to really know people like the fictional black fellas he has created here.

The audio format: I know this format isn’t for everyone but if you are a fan I highly recommend local actor Peter Hosking’s narration (of this and the many other Australian titles he has narrated over the years). This is a novel dominated in part by dialogue and Hosking does a superb job with the different cadences and speaking styles of the disparate characters and it really does add another layer of depth to the story.

*There is much variation in online bibliographies of Upfield’s work but this is generally attributable to the fact his books were published at sometimes wildly different times in different countries, and many were published under different names elsewhere. This novel for example is known as WINGS ABOVE THE CLAYPAN or WINGED MYSTERY in the US where it was Upfield’s second published novel in 1937


Publisher: This edition Bolinda Audio [2013], Original edition Angus and Robertson [1936]
ASIN: B00BLNP5U0
Length: 7 hours 48 minutes
Format: Audio download
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://fairdinkumcrime.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Review: TRACKING NORTH, Kerry McGinnis

  • first published by Penguin Group Australia in 2013
  • ISBN 978-1-921901-47-8
  • Available for Kindle
  • 346 pages
  • source: my local library

Synopsis (Penguin Australia)

Kelly Roberts finds refuge in the rugged and remote cattle country of northern Australia, but when tragedy strikes she is forced to find a new life for herself and her children outside of Rainsford Station.

She retreats to the family’s only asset – a freehold block of land owned jointly by her eccentric father-in-law, Quinn. In the valley at Evergreen Springs, Quinn hopes the fractured family might all come together to start over again.

Life in Queensland’s far north is wildly unpredictable, with daily challenges and the wet season, in all its wild majesty, to survive. But when twelve-year-old Rob makes the
gruesome discovery of a dead body in the valley, real peril comes far too close to home.

Tracking North is a beautiful family story about life in the stunning Gulf Country, one of the world’s most unique and fascinating places.

My Take

First of all,  this is a book on the very edge of crime fiction, on the soft edge one might say. Certainly there is a crime, and a murder, and some violence, but essentially it is a story abut a way of life in Australia, in the Far North, and a family making its way in a world that is changing rapidly.

Kerry McGinnis has obviously drawn on first hand experience of living and working in remote Queensland, and I couldn’t help wondering how a non-Australian reader would see the landscape and life style that she describes. Perhaps it will be an eye opener.

I did enjoy the book, inveterate crime fiction reader that I am, much more than I expected to, even the romance that won its way in the end. And, as the friend who recommended it to me said, there is mystery, there is the odd puzzle to be solved.

My rating: 4.3

About the author

Kerry McGinnis was born in Adelaide and at the age of twelve took up a
life of droving with her father and four siblings. The family travelled
extensively across the Northern Territory and Queensland before settling
on a station in the Gulf Country. Kerry has worked as a shepherd,
droving hand, gardener and stock-camp and station cook on the family
property Bowthorn, north-west of Mt Isa. She is the author of two
volumes of memoir, Pieces of Blue and Heart Country, and the bestselling novels The Waddi Tree, Wildhorse Creek and Mallee Sky. Kerry now lives in Bundaberg.