Crime Scene: KATHERINE HOWELL Deserving Death. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Deserving Death is the seventh novel in the Ella Marconi series from ex-paramedic Australian author, Katherine Howell. This is a series that just keeps getting better and better.
It’s not just solid plotting and good characters that make this novel work so well, there are also the dual perspectives of the police and the paramedics, both of whom look at a crime scene with different eyes. In Deserving Death the contrast is even more stark, as the victims themselves are emergency services personnel – found not just by other paramedics, but friends into the bargain.
This dual perspective gives Howell opportunities to provide some subtle but pointed reality checks for her readers. Here, the two paramedics who have just found their friend, seen her dreadful injuries, and given initial statements to the police, have been called back to their station for debriefing:
Alicia was dead. Carly couldn’t seem to get the fact into her brain. And then that Detective Marconi had turned up. Her card sat in Carly’s shirt pocket. Carly wasn’t one for signs or portents, but what did it mean when you made a teenage girl cooperate with a detective and that girl later killed herself over it, and the friend who supported you through your guilt and pain was later murdered and that same detective was on the case?
This is followed closely by a new emergency:
Carly was about to reply when a woman darted up and hammered on Tessa’s window. Tessa flinched as if she was about to be hit. ‘Quick!’ the woman shouted through the glass, gesturing wildly into the side street then rushing away in that direction.
No time to think, no time to process what has just happened – onto the next job. There’s a rawness and matter-of-factness to the way that Howell writes these scenes in all of her books. Working in the emergency services is no walk in the park, particularly in Deserving Death where the two victims, both female, both paramedics, have been brutally battered to death – with gloved hands, and by a perpetrator who seems to know how to hide his tracks. Apart from the job, there doesn’t seem to be much else in the way of connection between the victims, which ramps up the pressure on the colleagues left behind:
She lurched around the corner and made it to John’s locked car, then sank into a crouch, her back to a power pole, her whirling aching frightened head on her tightly folded arms.
Howell is a master at the art of taking you into her character’s heads and their immediate reactions. While the paramedics are struggling to cope with the reality of their friends’ deaths, they also struggle to cope with the pressure from outside – ambulance response times being an ongoing political hot potato in all states of Australia.
Deserving Death isn’t just issue-based crime fiction, it has, at its heart, great storytelling. The plot is a police procedural, with Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare desperately trying to find a lead on the deaths, despite the scarcity of forensics and the lack of connections. There are also a lot of red herrings to be worked through: an affair within the Ambulance Service, sudden discoveries of evidence that seem too convenient to be true, and the odd behaviour of ex-housemates.
The investigation is based on good, solid police procedures – checking timelines, checking alibis, checking CCTV – balanced nicely with the private lives of the detectives. This is where reading the earlier books will help, as Ella Marconi and her partner have a complicated and unexpected history, which gives them some interesting insights:
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘You see it as a problem, but maybe it’s just a situation. You see it as something that needs solving, but perhaps it’s just a fact of our lives.’
Most of the main characters have their personal complications: the death of children, the difficulties of caring for elderly and manipulative parents, siblings off the rails, as well as Carly, the paramedic, supporting a partner who is confronting the challenges of coming out as gay to her family:
Linsey’s mouth was dry, her hands damp. She hadn’t spoken the words aloud. Just say it like that, she told herself. Say ‘Can I talk to you?’
While there is much that works on many levels in Deserving Death, this is one of the most telling personal elements throughout. It’s delicately and beautifully interwoven into the everyday and it is heartbreaking at times:
‘You set all this up, and say I can move in and pretend to be your flatmate and not have to tell my family who I really am, and I know it was something I suggested myself once, but now it’s like you decided I was too much of a coward to ever do it.’
Cleverly, none of the personal elements ever detract from the investigation, which proceeds rapidly; there are clues for the noticing, and eventually the killer is revealed and a motive unearthed. The balance is elegantly achieved, as has always been the case in this series.
In Deserving Death we have great storytelling, assured and clever crime fiction. Not just concentrating on the central crime, the novel tackles a range of current issues, and it does that subtly, very cleverly and in a way that can’t help but stay with readers.
Katherine Howell Deserving Death Macmillan Australia PB 320pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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