AUSTRALIAN CRIME DEBUTS: BLACK RIVER by Matthew Spencer and POETIC LICENCE by Kevin Price
After the recent flood of Australian crime novels set in rural or remote settings, it is nice to read a couple of books with well described urban settings.
Matthew Spencer makes an impressive entry into the top ranks of Australian crime writers with his debut novel Black River (Allen & Unwin, 31 May 2022).
Set along the banks of Parramatta River, it opens with the murder of a young woman in the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. The police suspect that it may be the work of the so called ‘Blue Moon Killer’, who has already claimed two victims. As the police investigation unfolds, battling journalist Adam Bowman draws on his tragic links with Prince Albert College to give him an inside running on the story. Initially suspicious of Bowman, Detective Sergeant Rose Riley reluctantly draws on his knowledge, but senses that he knows more about the school than he is letting on.
This is a well-crafted and highly engaging crime novel. The perspective shifts smoothly between Riley and Bowman, and while the main focus is on the police investigation the internal politics of the newspaper that Bowman works for adds to the enjoyment. The story moves quickly and there are enough unexpected developments and moments of suspense to keep it interesting.
I particularly liked Spencer’s well developed characters, who generally avoid the usual stereotypes associated with crime fiction. The relationships between the various characters ring true, and Spencer avoids the pressure to overload the story with unnecessary romantic entanglements.
Spencer is a former journalist, and he brings a good sense of realism to the media aspects. His depiction of the police investigation is also credible, and it unfolds in a logical manner. The descriptions of the school and Parramatta River are simple, but evocative, and there are some good reflections on the power of money and the ‘old boy’ clique.
Wry comments by Riley and Bowman add a nicely cynical tone, and Riley’s reflections often rise a smile:
“Riley had a theory about Australian men and their tight arses. … The lack of a backside came from boyhoods spent outdoors, roaming the suburbs, the beach, the bush, from morning until their mothers called them in for tea. It was a way of life lost now, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had seen to that. The butt-end of the information revolutions: fatbergs larded with Zucker-tucker.”
In a year of strong debut novels, Matthew Spencer’s Black River is up there with the best of them. Four to four and a half stars out of five.
Black River was released in Australia on 31 May 2022. It is available on Kindle in the United States, but hard copy release in the United Kingdom and the United States seems some way off.
Set on the other side of Australia in Fremantle and Perth, is Kevin Price’s Poetic Licence (Crotchet Quaver, 15 May 2022).
Set in the days leading up to the 2013 Federal election, Poetic Licence focuses on the hysteria surrounding the increasing number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia in leaky, dangerous boats. Academic and occasional political fixer Art Lazaar is happy to be an observer of the chaos, until a friend from the old days drags him into the efforts to keep a young, female asylum seeker safe from some very nasty, and powerful, characters. Also caught up in the resulting carnage is Detective Sergeant Kelly Boulter who has good reasons for distrusting Lazaar.
Poetic Licence is peopled with characters who are tormented by their mysterious pasts, from Lazaar who is somehow linked to a secret government agency, to Hunter, an ex-journalist who now lives on the streets to keep his family safe from reprisals from a local Mafia gang, to Boulter, who is bitter about a failed undercover operation. All of this adds a good sense of mystery to the opening stages, but does require close reading to keep all the linkages clear.
Despite the intrigue and the large cast of characters, the Poetic Licence moves at a brisk pace and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the tension at a high level. Lazaar and Hunter are interesting, multi-faceted characters, and the asylum seeker at the core of the novel is nicely drawn and sympathetic.
Price ably recreates the mood of the 2013 election, which was disturbing replicated in the final days of the current election, with Morrison claiming that asylum seekers were again on the move and had to be stopped. The cynicism of conservative politics is well captured in the novel, as is the manipulation of the news cycle for political effect. Price also makes good use of music lyrics to add atmosphere and commentary to the story.
In all, Poetic Licence is an engrossing and compelling crime thriller that raises some serious issues. Four stars out of five.
Poetic Licence is released in Australia by Crotchet Quaver.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a copy of Poetic Licence for review.