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Posted on 28 Feb 2023 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

NIKKI MOTTRAM Crows Nest. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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This latest offering of Australian rural noir contrasts urban and small-town sensibilities from the perspective of a child protection officer.

Readers of Crows Nest will not be surprised to learn that author Nikki Mottram has an extensive background in child protection work, and a degree in psychology from the University of Queensland. Her real-life experience of working in rural communities, combined with an increasing tendency for negative representations of social workers in the media, prompted her to write this debut novel, the story of a dual murder. Both victims are long-time friends from Crows Nest, a small town near Toowoomba in Queensland: Sandra is the mother of young children, Debbie is her close friend and constant companion. Both are shot dead in a car in very peculiar circumstances soon after Dana Gibson attends her first welfare case in Crows Nest.

An experienced social worker, Dana is in Toowoomba on a temporary placement, fleeing problems in her marriage, but everything seems destined to begin badly when she crashes her car on the way into town. Off-kilter right from the start, she finds her new boss is hard to get a handle on, and her first call-out is to sit in on the assessment of the family of Sandra Kirby, a young mother with a few complaints against her name, a house in disarray, and a husband, Paul, who seems to care, despite a history of domestic violence that goes both ways. Those problems got worse when Sandra’s two half-sisters moved in. Chrystal still lives with the family, but Alisha, the older sister, has already moved out.

Sandra’s life hasn’t been easy. When she was young her own family was dysfunctional, and she had a wild child reputation. Paul’s background hasn’t been ideal either, but as far as most of the locals are concerned, the couple is doing the best they can, and the incident that led to social services getting involved seems to have been the sort of blow-up that can happen when tensions overflow. As explained by Dana’s young colleague Keely:

‘A nine-year-old girl got hurt during a domestic violence incident. Actually, the mum, Sandra, was the perpetrator. Smashed all the plates in the kitchen during a fight with her husband. Her daughter, Billy-Violet, got hit and needed stitches to her forehead. There’s also a teenager who lives there, Chrystal – she’s the mother’s half-sister.’ Keely cleared her throat. ‘I should probably mention that a police officer, Connor Morgan, is also coming. He’s letting the mother know that they’re not pressing charges.’

As is the way in all small communities, everyone seems to know everything about everyone else. Which makes the fact that Sandra and Debbie – supposedly heading out to witness the birth of a foal at a farm in the middle of a cold dark night – ended up shot dead in the car on a quiet country back road, and there are no leads and no obvious motives, odd to say the least. Of course Dana’s first priority is to make sure Sandra’s kids are okay, particularly when the police drag Paul in as the most likely suspect, but even after his release and the kids’ return home, there’s something about the family that means she can’t let go. Much to the annoyance of new, very stressed boss Helen:

‘Since you’ve been here, you’ve only finalised three cases and have spent an unusual amount of time on the Kirby case.’ She shook her head and said almost imperceptibly, ‘It’s unbelievable. You’ve left me no choice but to suspend you for a week. Effective immediately. Hand in your ID and Keely will have to take over your cases. When you return to work, I expect you to close the Kirby case and say goodbye to those girls.’

But Dana should never have been anywhere near the Kirby case in the first place. One of Sandra’s daughters, Rubi, is a very small baby and Dana’s just lost her own infant son. It’s a big part of what’s gone wrong in her marriage, and her life:

Dana stared at her feet, trying not to appear rattled. She couldn’t have made it any clearer to Helen that she wouldn’t work with infants until she’d settled into the job. What kind of person would give a case involving a newborn to someone who’d just lost a baby of their own?

Needless to say, it’s all very messy. The office and social work team are overwhelmed with cases. The police investigation into the shooting heads off in the wrong direction completely, and the conclusion reeks of expediency over truth.

The Kirby family was stressed before the shootings and is a red-hot mess afterwards. Dana’s no better. Her relationship with her husband is all over the place, with neither of them communicating well, especially as Dana has never properly explained her decision to move to Toowoomba. That her husband’s first wife is staying in their home when she returns briefly to Sydney doesn’t help, and mistrust and false assumptions abound, as well as a big misstep on Dana’s personal front.

Luckily her Queensland landlady Susan is an oasis of calm, despite having a lot on her own plate, including caring for her young grandson Angus because his mother can’t. As soon as Angus realises Dana’s a person he can be friends with, he flits between his grandmother’s and Dana’s rented house next door (and Dana has a television – unlike at home). An odd, highly intelligent and thoughtful young boy, Angus is a loner, happy to insert himself into Dana’s investigation of the murders, making both of them targets for somebody who would much prefer they stopped. The threat becomes very real when Angus disappears, and Dana finally realises she has bitten off more than she can chew. Especially with all the emotional baggage she’s hauling around behind her.

The sense of chaos feels very real, adding a level of authenticity to a different viewpoint of a crime: one that prioritises children, often unwitting victims of upheaval and trauma. There’s lots of little glimpses into the world of foster caring, child welfare, interactions between police and social workers and the sorts of awful situations that they all must face, as well as the triggers and tells they learn to detect, which others may miss. Aspects of the resolution may not be that hard to pick, and are all the more challenging because of it. If the reader can pick up the possibilities here, then what must the social workers and emergency services be seeing everywhere, all the time?

Nikki Mottram Crows Nest UQP 2023 PB 320pp $32.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Crows Nest from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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