Half way through reading Overkill, I fire up Google Maps and look up Mataura, New Zealand. It’s exactly how I imagined it. Vanda Symon’s portrayal of Smalltown on the South Island is vivid and convincing. This particular path is well-trodden: copper gets thrown off case, becomes a suspect, has to go it alone. The case isn’t a bad one: a murder dressed up to look like a suicide. We know the suicide isn’t real because Symon shows us enough, in a prologue. We’re a little ahead of the police and while that doesn’t last for long, the relentless pace of the story carries us along, with short chapters that are long on action. I didn’t want to put down my copy.
It helps that our narrator is Sam Shephard, a kick-ass character who has plenty of spirit and pluck and impatience. We like Sam. She’s capable and bright and caring and self-deprecating: she isn’t prissy, nor does she believe in an unexpressed thought, but that’s not a bad thing given that we’re watching her try to solve a case more-or-less single-handed, bouncing ideas off her non-copper flatmate. We wince with her as she reconnects with her ex and struggles with her residual feelings for him, we roar with indignation at the boneheadedness of her superiors (some police plot devices are universal, after all), we yell at her as she makes decisions that will clearly put her in harm’s way, we nod with shared exasperation as she interviews the town gossip, who talks and talks but provides the key clue only in passing. There’s a physicality to Sam’s performance, whether she’s dripping with cow dung, jumping up and down on a car jack or choking back sobs in the pub. The overall effect is cinematic at times.
This high-octane first person tale has a couple of twists but the main one is perhaps emotional and relates to Sam’s progression as a character. The result is that the issues raised by the crime – which could have been explored in greater detail especially as they might impact Smalltown – are raised and rather discarded. I get the feeling that’s a feature not a bug: we’re here to experience Smalltown, not to save it.
It’s often the case with imported crime series that they come to the UK a few instalments in, so it’s great to be in on the ground floor and have the chance to see Sam Shephard progress as a character. If her future adventures make it to these shores, I’ll be checking them out.