My colleague Kieran knows Dunedin, and so do I. Kieran has lived there, though, and I haven’t even visited. But I’ve spent a lot of time on Google Maps checking it out, as I seem to do whenever buried in one of Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard thrillers. It isn’t normal behaviour, but these novels aren’t normal either, and I’m not entirely sure what it is about them. Perhaps it’s the New Zealand setting, the mix of the familiar and the exotic? Or perhaps it’s Sam Shephard herself, everyone’s favourite fearless detective constable?
I’ve been trying to work out why we all love Sam. It isn’t as though we haven’t found strong female leads before. She’s flawed and a work in progress and she’s tough as nails and as fragile as a bully’s ego. And she’s idealistic and demanding, in both her professional and personal life, in a way that perhaps makes more sense in this instalment. She saves the life of someone who had just assaulted her, she steps in when an individual is being threatened by some inadequates, she breaks up fights. As someone poetically puts it to her: you…save. And that makes perfect sense, once we look at that statement from various angles. We’re on her side and, thankfully for the literary tension, her boss and her mother are largely not.
But I think the truth about Sam is that she is simply a brilliant narrator. Vanda Symon has her tell a good story extremely well. It’s as though we’ve pulled up a chair as she unwinds with her best friend Maggs in the pub, unwinding over a beer. But it isn’t a chatty novel, exactly; there’s a quality to the inner monologue that manages to be slightly self-deprecating and literary without being flowery.
There’s a physicality about her character, too: from the twinges from getting beaten up or having fallen over, and she puts her body in the way of danger throughout the novel. Maggs and to a lesser extent colleague Smithy give us the chance to hear some self-reflection. That said, Sam goes a bit rogue in this one and part of the fun is trying to predict whether she’s going to get away with it, or which the twist is going to be. And of course, the twist involves the one character I was nowhere near predicting. I’ll admit that one of my suspects was Sam’s boyfriend Paul: that’s how far off the mark I got. But no one is squeaky and no one is perfect.
We’ve been in Smalltown before, but the shipwreck, beach party and ripe circumstances in which a dead body is found made me think of Jaws. The shipwreck and the murder are, it turns out, linked. Are the drugs world linked with a crew of antiquers? What’s all this got to do with the price of paint? Will Sam’s mum ever give her a break? Will Sam get off Paul’s back? AND WHAT DOES SHE THINK SHE IS DOING GOING INTO THAT FLAT? AND WHAT DOES SHE THINK SHE IS DOING GOING INTO THAT HOUSE? And once we’re done with all that, will we ever find the killer or killers? This is what reading crime thrillers for pleasure is all about.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the blog tour.