Don’t get murdered in Dunedin. The local plod are useless, other than the protagonist of The Ringmaster, the brilliant Sam Shephard. We first met Sam in Overkill, set in New Zealand Smalltown, and now she has popped up in the big city, where she is hated by her boss and slightly resented and/or slightly fancied by the rest of the crew.
By coincidence, the first victim is herself fancied and resented in her own field of work: academia; while the theme of the ‘other’ is provided by the circus which is the background of much of the novel. Vanda Symon explores what it means to live under society’s prejudiced glare.
But back to the local police. I find The Ringmaster a difficult book to assess, though it’s none the worse for that. Much of the reason is Sam’s hot-and-cold involvement in the team pursuing Rosie’s death. The way in which Sam fights her way onto the team does make sense, and it makes sense that it is she that solves the crime – but what the hell are the rest of the team doing? They provide next to no insight, no new leads, no analysis.
Us readers probably don’t care, though, and for two main reasons. The first is Sam Shephard herself, one of the most interesting and three-dimensional characters we’ve found in this kind of novel. We meet her as she improvises to defuse a stand-off between circus folk and animal rights activists. She’s good at bringing people on board, though she doesn’t always see the point. She’s never too far away from being impetuous and angry but Vanda Symon is careful to show the copper’s tender side, whether with her mother and father, or with the new friends she makes during this adventure.
I use the word ‘adventure’ because on the one hand Sam does not, mainly, have fun in this novel. But her mother thinks she does, and it would be wrong to dismiss that view as the ramblings of a woman who spends no time trying to understand her daughter. We see enough of Sam to know that she regards the heroics as part of the job. It’s wanting to prove herself by cracking the case that drives her forward.
She’s strong and badass and cracks wise and takes no nonsense, and of course we like all those things, but it is her incompleteness that makes Sam such an stand-out character. There’s a slight dissonance between her inner voice and her actual dialogue, and her character is the better for it. She is aware of the different preferences of her head and her heart. She can be vulnerable in the moment but will fight her corner. She knows how her buttons are pressed. We love her relationship with her best friend Maggie – and are fascinated by her car crashes with nemesis/boss DI Johns (both relationships have a long way to run and we look forward to it). Vanda Symon allows her a physicality that is unusual but it’s compelling and brings me to the other stand out feature: the vividness of the writing. We’re alongside Sam as she interviews the circus folk, as she makes friends with their lovely elephant, as she stares down Johns, as she mops her wine-stained top, as she munches Toffee Pops with Maggie. We witness the politics in the university, in the police, in Sam’s own family. We even get a pretty good idea about what the driveway in front of her house is like. Some writers over-detail, but Symon does not. The book has plenty of pace and we always want to know what happens next. That goes for the end of the book, too. The epilogue gives us a nice bridge to what we must hope will be the next adventure – yes, adventure – for the kick-ass chick from the Kiwi sticks.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for inviting us to host today’s blog tour slot. Do have a look at the reviews on the other blogs taking part: