Crime Scene: MICHAEL ROBOTHAM Close Your Eyes. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
The CWA Gold Dagger Winner’s latest novel is a return to his much-loved Joe O’Loughlin series.
As is often the way with series books, some knowledge of past novels can enhance a reader’s pleasure, and in this case Shatter (2008) is close to mandatory reading before you sit down to enjoy Close Your Eyes – mainly to ensure that you get the full impact of the family changes that confront consulting psychiatrist O’Loughlin in his latest outing. There is a very close correlation between the two books, although definitely not enough to avoid picking this one up if you’re new to Robotham’s work.
The investigative elements of Close Your Eyes centre around the murder in a remote farmhouse of a woman and her teenage daughter. The daughter’s death is gentle in comparison to her mother’s, where the crime scene reveals elements that have an oddly staged, supernatural feeling to them.
You definitely don’t have to have read any of the earlier books (all of which have been discussed here) to get the sly, dry and clever sense of humour that infects much of Robotham’s writing:
… Veronica Cray is calling me …
‘Can I call you back?’
‘It’s just that I’m –’
‘Busy, yeah, I know, so am I. I’m busier than a one-legged Riverdancer and you won’t call me back because you don’t want to talk to me. You never do because you think I want something. But just stop for a moment and consider that this could be a social call. I might just be calling as a friend. I might want to chew the fat.’
The timing of the call could not be worse. Part of the fallout of the events in Shatter is that O’Loughlin’s marriage to Julianne has imploded because he slept with another woman for complicated, yet oddly understandable reasons after his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. He’s rightly blamed himself ever since, and while he and his wife maintain a close connection for the sake of their daughter, he’s never lost hope that maybe their relationship could be repaired.
So Cray ringing about a double murder just as Julianne has asked if he’d like to spend the summer with her isn’t what O’Loughlin wants to hear: he’s too busy trying not to read more into Julianne’s offer than may exist. It’s really only when an ex-student of O’Loughlin’s, who has offered his services to the investigation, turns the information he’s garnered into a grandstanding attempt to raise his own profile that O’Loughlin reluctantly heads to the crime scene and into the investigation, and the spotlight. His reluctance and scepticism are summed up in a brief exchange with a local identity after a police information night about the murder:
‘You’re that professor?’ he says excitedly. ‘You must be proud of your protégé.’
‘Yes, he’s come a long way,’ I reply. ‘Let’s hope he finds his way back.’
The personal elements of Close Your Eyes continue to revolve around O’Loughlin, his family and his close relationship with ex-police detective, good friend, solid individual, and clever observer of humans, Vincent Ruiz.
As always with this author, everything is threaded elegantly into a plot that will slowly dig its way into your subconscious and sit there, often to come back as an odd moment of recall or a disquieting feeling when you least expect it. This, of all the elements that are memorable in Robotham’s work, is the standout – the way that the commonplace and seemingly simple becomes sinister, and the way that stays with the reader long after the book is finished. Some level of discomfort seems to spring from the normal, ordinary lives of the victims, often of his villains, and always of the two central characters. It’s easy to see how some of the ideas for the books come from real life – everyday situations that go bad are considerably more scary than anything the mad, bad, ‘big threat’ scenarios could ever be.
That sense of reality is expanded by a strong set of characters, who continue to evolve and grow, or struggle. The early decision to inflict Parkinson’s disease on Joe O’Loughlin may give Robotham problems in managing its progression over such a long-running series, but O’Loughlin’s difficulties are not just physical. The failure of his marriage haunts his every moment:
That night, lying alone in Emma’s bed, I hold out my hand, reaching into the darkness, and I trace Julianne’s curves in my mind, feeling her breath against my face, her heart against mine.
This loss continues to matter more than anything else. The Parkinson’s seems to have become, in O’Loughlin’s mind, the burden he bears as penance for past transgressions.
Ruiz, on the other hand, continues to have a much more sanguine attitude to life and ex-wives (he has three by now, although a much closer relationship with the most recent one than before the divorce). He’s the perfect foil as he focuses on the ‘who and where’, leaving the ‘why’ to the more introspective O’Loughlin. Ruiz is also not a man adverse to a bit of hornets’ nest stirring – especially in territory where caution would seem to be the sensible approach – such as when entering a Harley sales and repair shop:
‘I always wanted to ask someone,’ says Ruiz, ‘what sort of a middle-aged shovelhead buys a bike that turns petrol into decibels. Then he rides around in a piss-pot helmet, jeans, lace-up boots and reflective sunglasses, looking like a complete tool. Is it a penis issue?’
The man blinks at him. ‘Maybe you don’t want the Harley.’
There are also messages woven into these books – about the cases, the victims, the perpetrators and society as a whole. O’Loughlin’s observational and non-confrontational nature allows Robotham to move him into situations and conversations that nobody can ever image anyone having with an investigator (private or police). There’s opportunity in that for commentary that cuts through and calls out real life:
The old woman rolls her eyes and doesn’t answer me directly. ‘I think society tolerates aggression in men. They are seen as being fragile, unhappy creatures, no longer in control, no longer having the same privileges or power as in the past, so we are supposed to forgive them if they swing a fist.’
Robotham’s an author who has never shied away from putting his characters through the mill on a personal and professional basis and Close Your Eyes continues that tradition strongly.
Postscript: While I was writing this review, the United Kingdom Crime Writers’ Association announced that Robotham’s most recent stand-alone novel, Life or Death, had won the 2015 Goldsboro Gold Dagger Award; an exciting and much deserved selection, and only the second time in the 60-year history of the awards that an Australian has won.
Michael Robotham Close Your Eyes Sphere 2015 PB 464pp $29.95
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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