Crime Scene: TANIA CHANDLER Please Don’t Leave me Here; JM GREEN Good Money. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
Here are two very promising debut crime novels – both set in Melbourne.
Told in three parts, Please Don’t Leave Me Here by Melbourne writer Tania Chandler begins with the story of Brigitte – mother of twins and married to policeman Sam – a normal wife and mother, with a secret. Part I, ‘Come as You Are’, set in 2008, is the present, after Sam and Brigitte have met while she was in hospital recovering from a car accident, a meeting connected to Sam’s investigation into both the accident and the death of Eric Tucker, a music promoter. The injuries Brigitte sustained affect her physically to this day but something about the accident has also cast a mental shadow over both of them, and their relationship is faltering. There’s much about that night that Brigitte knows and is either unwilling, or unable, to pass on:
It’s another slow-news day by the look of the Age online: Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard condemns the binge drinking of a football player; celebrity chef Nigella Lawson hires a personal trainer to help keep her famous figure in shape. Brigitte sips her coffee, yawns and scrolls down further. Victorian cold-case detectives to reopen 1994 investigation of slain concert promoter, Eric Tucker. Her heart stops. The missed beat catches up and hammers on top of the next one. She glances over her shoulder, shuts down the computer, and stares at the blank screen while Kitty figure-eights around her ankles.
The dread that Brigitte feels over the reopening of that cold case becomes even more palpable when Sam’s colleague Aiden, the detective assigned to it, moves into their bungalow as a paying lodger. After a sexual encounter that Brigitte instigated and only slightly regrets, the family’s life gently and inevitably starts to slide out of control. It’s increasingly obvious to the reader that there is a lot more to this story, and to Brigitte’s background, than the first part of the novel is prepared to spell out.
Part I of the novel is thriller-like, with much being hinted at, and some small reveals, drawing out Brigitte’s difficult life and personal insecurities. Aside from the obvious problems with the marriage, there’s also something oddly sinister about her relationship with her husband. Sam seems part husband, part minder, part mistruster, although given Brigitte is obviously so unreliable the reader is left with doubts and questions about everybody, including the lodger.
In Part II, ‘About a Girl’, we go back to 1994 and the events leading up to the accident and Tucker’s death. This is not just about Brigitte but also her family, her much-loved grandparents and the brother she is still close to in the present. Now the reader starts to discover the story behind the hints, and the darker, less domestic and controlled side of her early life:
It’s a ten-minute walk to work. The cool darkness of the Gold Bar wraps around her like a security blanket. She pulls back her shoulders, sticks out her breasts, and swings her hips as she leaves stupid, awkward Brigitte at the door, and sexy, confident Pagan takes over.
The author explores Brigitte’s reinvention and how difficult that becomes when someone is also trying to conceal more than just a socially questionable background. Because Brigitte is struggling with both guilt and cover-up, and feelings of abandonment and self-loathing, and the reader is experiencing everything from her point of view, it’s frequently uncomfortable. It’s also difficult to experience the number of unrelenting psychological batterings she takes as this process evolves.
In Part III we return to ‘Come as You Are’, 2008, and the short, sharp delivery of the truth: ‘Sleeping tablets, painkillers, Valium. And alcohol. Large quantities …’
Somewhere in the middle of Part 2 the novel declares its colours firmly as more psychological study than thriller. It’s not really a who- or how- or even a why- dunnit. It’s more about the damage and fallout from youthful events; a call to consider the implications of cover-up and denial. How readers respond to this most assured and unusual debut is going to depend totally on what they feel about Brigitte.
Set mostly in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, JM Green’s Good Money introduces Stella Hardy. A social worker by vocation, Hardy is the sort of laksa-loving, inner-city woman who fits into the role of accidental detective with considerable aplomb. She moves through the suburbs on foot, by tram and taxi, regardless of the weather and her own personal health, while sometimes reflecting back to her life as a young girl on a farm – and the lessons (harshly) learnt then.
Reflective in private, a bit of an action woman when required, Hardy is a character able to carry this sort of book with ease. She interacts with her clients with forthrightness where required, and a believable brusqueness if necessary. She knows how to hang in there when the going gets tough, and it gets very tough indeed when the murder of the son of one of her clients, Adut Chol, a young African boy mixed up with some shady types, coincides with the disappearance of her beauty therapist next-door neighbour, bringing danger right to her doorstep.
The death of Adut, the problem child of his family, worries everyone with its implications for his younger brother Mabor, who seems to know more than he’s willing to say. Finding evidence Adut left behind that appears to include direct references to Hardy makes it very personal, hinting at a secret she would much rather didn’t come to light. Unfortunately there’s a chance that the Chol boys, and therefore the gangster Adut was working for, know all about it.
While that thread seems to fall into place seamlessly, Hardy’s involvement in the search for her missing next-door neighbour, Nina, is slightly more surprising, especially how easily she finds access to Nina’s family. That investigation starts out simply enough, and ends up providing considerably more threat than Hardy could possibly have seen coming. There’s also, cleverly, the opportunity to take her out of the city, into the bush, but not the country of her childhood, and definitely not the safety of farm and family. Here her resourcefulness is allowed to shine, albeit with some timely assistance from unexpected quarters:
Somewhere in the distance, a mining company chopper thrashed the air. I was starting to wonder if it was one of the last things I would ever hear. We were in an isolated part of the desert, they were going to shoot me, and my body would be picked over by the slow-wheeling birds flying above me.
Good Money is a really strong, enjoyable character study, building a world in which new crime-fighting hero Stella Hardy can strut her stuff. There’s nicely pitched humour, there’s some elegantly staged protagonist jeopardy and absolutely no hint of any foolishly dangerous walking into situations. A good supporting cast continues that theme of inner-city intermingling with friend and cop Phuong Nguyen and potential love interest artist Peter Brophy (that’s complicated, of course).
Some of the plotting doesn’t quite stack up as well as it could, and there are a few odd side roads they can make for some inconvenient plot slowdowns. There are also some too-obvious vital clues, but those are very minor problems when balanced against the strength of the characters and the believable scenarios. As well, there are realistic and very promising romantic complications, and a refreshingly relaxed view of working hours that will be the envy of many. Good Money introduces the reader to a new character who deserves a good long series.
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
Tania Chandler Please Don’t Leave Me Here Scribe 2015 PB 304pp $29.99
JM Green Good Money Scribe 2015 PB 288pp $29.95
To see if these books are available from Newtown Library click here.