Small town secrets and lies…
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Detective Sergeant Malcolm Buchan has just been appointed to head up the CIB in the Southern Lakes district of New Zealand’s South Island, when the body of a woman is found in the frozen water of a river near the small town of Queenstown. The fact that the body is naked makes accidental death unlikely, so suddenly Malcolm finds himself with a murder investigation on his hands, and to make matters more complicated, he soon discovers he has a personal connection to the case. Being new to the area, Malcolm is happy when a local cop is seconded to his team – Sergeant Magda Hansen, transferred from Traffic. Their first task is to find out the identity of the dead woman…
This is a début novel, and was nominated for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel in 2017. It’s a police procedural, well written in third person, past tense, with a strong plot and some excellent descriptive writing that brings the small town, set amid rugged landscape, to life. Both Malcolm and Magda carry some personal baggage, but neither is the tedious angst-ridden maverick of so much current crime fiction. Malcolm had previously served in the armed forces including tours of duty in Afghanistan, and is still affected by events that happened there. Magda is trying to balance her role as wife and mother with her ambitions for her career – ambitions which her husband doesn’t support. They are both likeable characters in this initial outing, and each have plenty of room to develop and grow further in sequels, if this is to be the first in a series.
As the plot develops, we discover that the dead woman was well known around town and had links to several of the prominent businessmen and local politicians. What’s not so clear is what was at the root of these links and why so many people seem to want to deny knowing her. Malcolm soon finds that this small community has many secrets, and it’s his job to get past the wall of silence and lies that the townspeople have thrown up. This is where Magda’s local knowledge is essential – as a police officer, she knows many of the people involved and understands the power structures within this small society.
I found this an intriguing story with an excellent setting. Queenstown is full of tourists in the summer months, but now, in the heart of winter, only the permanent residents are around, nicely limiting the potential suspects to a manageable number. Although this is his fiction début, Ell has apparently been a nature writer and photographer and this shows through in his excellent descriptions of the landscape and weather, and the isolated feeling of some of the scenes that take place in more remote parts of the territory. The underlying motive is interesting and stays within the bounds of credibility, and the police procedural aspects feel believable and convincing. As well as the two main characters, we meet the rest of the small team and again they have plenty of potential for future development.
The one weakness for me was that I found the ending a bit messy and not altogether clear. It felt a little rushed and, after all the convincing detective work throughout the book, relied a bit too much on luck in the end. There were perhaps too many extra strands, probably put in to provide some misdirection which indeed they did, but it meant all the various solutions were kind of delivered in a surge at the end, leaving me feeling a bit bewildered – all the answers are given but in a way that meant it took me a bit of time to work out which parts fitted together and which were separate from the main plot. But this was a small issue that didn’t have a big impact on my overall enjoyment of the book.
So in conclusion, a strong début that introduces some characters and a setting that I’ll be more than happy to revisit in the future. It’s not yet been published in the UK or the US, but hopefully it will be at some point. I’m indebted to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for sending me her own copy – she was on the judging panel for the Ngaio Marsh Award and it was her spotlighting of the novel that first drew it to my attention. Thanks, Margot – greatly appreciated!