On a remote Tasmanian grazing property, a gundog judge is murdered—at first glance by a blind man shooting blanks at a dead pigeon—in an incident seen but not understood by Tasmania Police Sgt. Charlie Banes and his close friend, visiting Canadian author Teague Kendall.
After spending a fair amount of time in Tasmania in the 1970's, Canadian Gordon Aalborg did what all red blooded Canadian-Australian men do, he turned to writing romance novels. 20 or more of those novels later, he's now turned to crime fiction as well, and DINING WITH DEVILS is the second of those.
Set in Tasmania, DINING WITH DEVILS combines crime and caving - not a combination that you'd immediately think of (unless you're inclined towards the belief that activities in the dark are best when that dark is rocky, hard, damp, and far underground!)
Sergeant Charlie Banes from the Tasmanian police isn't the only one who instantly thinks that the blind man shooting blanks at a dead pigeon has killed the gun dog judge. Visiting Canadian author Teague Kendall came to the same conclusion. At the same time caving enthusiast and almost girlfriend of Kendall, Kirsten Knelsen, is kidnapped. Nothing connects these two events until Kendall also goes missing. Odd? Well add a psychotic anti-American ex-Vietnam War sniper; a vengeful ex-wife; a killer who was supposed to have died in a Canadian cave a year ago; an irascible old bushman; an even more irascible Jack Russell; and a Bunch of Tassie Devils doing what Tassie Devils do best and Charlie's up to his elbows in the mad, the bad, and the simply flat out peculiar.
One of the hardest things about writing a book based somewhere you don't live on a daily basis would seem to be getting the language right - the slang, the intonation and, in particular with Australia, the dry, sarcastic wit. Aalborg's done a terrific job at getting a very realistic feel, tone and timing to the dialogue in DINING WITH DEVILS. There are a few minor slipups that local readers will need to forgive - cellphone isn't a term we use at all, and despite SUV making minor inroads into our daily language courtesy of some appallingly lazy advertising, it's still not ubiquitous. Luckily the pace of the book is going to pull a local reader through these minor blips, and the main part of the dialogue - particularly the humour, works pretty well.
The other thing that works really well in DINING WITH DEVILS is the descriptions and use of the Tasmanian bush. The characters live within their setting with ease, the locations within the book, whilst most likely fictional, seem right for the place.
The action in this book is tight, and taut, and whilst the plot is complicated, it's not messy. It's also not without some laugh out loud funny moments, as well as the occasional peak through the fingers scary bits. It's not a book that gives up on characterisation for the sake of action, although not all the characters are meant to be people that you want to sit down and have a beer with. Suspense, action, humour, cannibalism, caving, bushcraft, Tassie Devils, and a cranky Jack Russell terrier - DINING WITH DEVILS has the lot.
STORM PEAK - John A Flanagan
Jesse Parker, an ex-Denver police detective, has returned home to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to spend the winter working the ski patrol and taking it easy.
After a skier is found murdered, Lee Torrens, the local sheriff, asks her old friend Jesse to help out with the investigations.
There are never enough new crime fiction writers and/or novels in Australia every year (okay so I'm greedy!), but there are certainly never enough quite as good as STORM PEAK which is John A Flanagan's first crime fiction novel, and I'm certainly cheering for more.
STORM PEAK is set in Colorado in the US, and I hope a reader would be hard-pressed to pick that the setting isn't the author's own, except perhaps for the use of the much beloved u (in spelling). Setting away from the author's home base can sometimes not work - little inaccuracies in dialect and/or terminology can clang badly, but very little seemed not to fit. There's a central male character - Jesse Parker, ex-Denver police detective, returned to civilian life in his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado after a stake-out goes horribly wrong. Add a central female character - Lee Torrens is the local sheriff, local girl, ex-childhood friend and teenage sweetheart of Jesse. There's still some ongoing sexual and romantic attachment between them. Tentative attempts to re-establish a personal relationship after many years, rapidly goes pear-shaped when Jesse's journalist ex-wife appears in town. His ex-wife is in town because there's a serial killer in Steamboat Springs. Not exactly a series of elements that would immediately make me like the sound of this book. So my sheer enjoyment of it came as somewhat of a surprise for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the setting, the tone and the characters seemed to fit like a hand in a tailor-made glove. Secondly, despite the on-again / off-again / will she / won't he relationship between Jesse and Lee, there's also a feeling of reality about the difficulties of somebody going home, and everyone trying to pick up the pieces after many years. The balance of the relationship versus police work and the killer's activities was good - the personal certainly didn't cloud or overshadow the main thread of the book, and it added some pace and texture at points. The serial killer element worked despite a reasonably predictable motivation, mostly because of the nature of the killings - random targets, often in public places, there's a level of bravado that makes this killer less sick and creepy, more dangerous and edgy.
Jesse's rapidly drafted in as a Deputy Sheriff to help investigate the killings, and there's obviously going to be pressure from on high, with the town relying on tourist traffic, and tourist hang-outs being amongst the killer's preferred stalking locations. The tension at the end of the book is ramped up quickly with a dangerous battle to save the girl, a nice little twist and a follow-up hefty dose of a happy ending. By that stage that didn't make me want to cringe, and overall, this book was extremely entertaining. I hope the publisher's entering STORM PEAK in the Best First Crime Novel category of the Ned Kelly awards this year, it would be very interesting to see how it goes.