27 April 2019

Review - The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon

Cover by Mark Swan
The Ringmaster (Sam Shephard 2)
Vanda Symon
Orenda Books, 25 April 2019
PB, 252pp, e

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for a free advance reading copy of The Ringmaster.

The Ringmaster is the sequel to Overkill (link to my review) also featuring detective Sam Shephard. Both books are new to the UK but originally published in New Zealand, where they are set, and I'd congratulate Orenda for bringing these heartfelt stories, bursting with sense of place, to a UK audience.

Overkill introduced Sam ('Shep' to her mates), the face of law and order in Mataura, a one-company town focussed on meat packing where her police work consisted largely of sorting out scuffles at closing time and trivial car accidents. Then a murderer struck, and Sam found herself both keen to solve the crime and in the frame as a killer.

That case brought her into conflict with the bullying, misognynist DI Johns and in The Ringmaster is seems she can't quite shake off Johns.

Sam is now a trainee detective, resented by some for her apparent fast rise and despised even more by Johns, who unfortunately leads her team. She's again reduced to all the petty tasks, even to non-detective roles such as sorting out a protest against the circus that has come to town. At one point he speculates to her face on who she must have slept with to get promotion to detective.

So another murder - of a young postdoc researcher, Rose-Marie Bateman - brings mixed feelings: pity for the victim and her family, a determination to play a part in solving the case, and an opportunity to show she has what it takes. One of the things I loved about this book was its honestly about those feelings and about Sam's frustration at being pushed to the margins, for example being sent around town to every shop selling cable ties (as though the Internet wasn't a thing).

After her previous run-in with 'DI I'm-God-with-a-grudge Johns', you just know that Sam's not going to accept that for long, however much she may be trying to behave. And Johns has let her know that he has his eye on her, waiting for her to step out of line... When it happens it's in the most extraordinary way, in a scene that had me reaching for the tissues: no spoilers, but you'll know when you come to it.

Surprisingly, however, for much of the book the armed truce between Sam and the DI holds, with much of her stress coming form elsewhere. Her father is ill, her controlling, manipulative mother is in town, bringing plenty of guilt and resentment and someone's posting stalkery notes on Sam's new car (if you read Overkill you'll remember what happened to her previous car, her new one is her pride and joy). There are also personal complications as Paul Frost, another police office we met in Overkill, turns up in Dunedin to give evidence at a trial... Sam has a bit of a thing for him, but it's an abrasive relationship at best and having her mum to stay makes things tricky. (There's a hilarious scene as she is reduced to teenagerhood, trying to creep back into the house in the early hours).

Through all this Symon weaves a clever net of clues, red herrings and escalating tension leading to a dramatic conclusion that is I think going to pose Shephard further problems in future with DI Johns. Looking forward to reading about that!

This is a strong, character-led crime novel firmly driven by the redoubtable Sam. I would strongly recommend. (And just take a moment to appreciate that glorious cover by Mark Swan - a real thing of beauty.)

You can buy The Ringmaster from your local bookshop, including via Hive, from Waterstones, Blackwell's or Amazon and many other places too.

For more about the book, see the Orenda website here.

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