It's refreshing to see more Australian Crime fiction moving out from the suburban and city streets - into the regional areas. DEATH AMONG THE VINES sets most of its action in and around the Ashcombe Vineyard in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales.
Col Ashcombe - a well known winemaker - is bashed to death in a creekbed on the winery, just as his son - Tim - is seeking finance to give the New York based advertising agency he is a partner in, a boost to take on some higher profile and larger accounts. Tim has only recently been in Australia - a flying visit during which he argued with his father. His delayed return for the funeral finds him involved in solving the murder of his father, and sorting out whether the winery will be sold or can remain in the family.
Writing a first book must be a nerve wracking undertaking - and when reading them, I often find it's important to consider the book from a number of viewpoints, and maybe cut the author a little slack as they develop a style and voice of their own. DEATH AMONG THE VINES is seen mostly from Tim's viewpoint. He has a very difficult relationship with his family, and maybe it's that difficulty that is being transmitted, but most of the rest of the family were sketchy at best. Tim's mother seems a very distant, remote woman, not really connected to her husband, the winery, her family or the murder all that strongly - she was almost ghostlike on the outskirts. There is some indication that she is supposed to be distant - but it was possibly too much, too circumstantial. Much the same with Tim's sister Janet who was present sporadically but also hard to get to know all that much. The concentration on Tim meant that he is the most vividly drawn character - and in his own right, somewhat difficult to like. He frequently seems more interested in the financial side of the business than who would have killed his father. Even allowing for the difficult relationship with his father, it seemed an overtly mercenary approach on occasions.
There is another winery next door to Ashcombe - Clements - owned by cousins, and it is from here that a family feud complicates the possible list of suspects, that complication made worse by Tim's strong attraction to Pearl Clements who is home, at the winery, when he returns after his father's death. There is no love lost between the two families, and there is a grudge against the victim in particular. Suspects in the death of Col Ashcombe could come from his own family, the Clements or maybe a disgruntled employee. As Tim snoops around, there is a formal police investigation which sort of comes and goes in the storyline.
DEATH AMONG THE VINES does have some problems. Firstly the plot is pretty easy to see coming, and there's very little tension or pace in the way that the elements are revealed. Maybe with a little more pace, the transparency would have been less of an issue. There is also some very stilted dialogue to read, and a few clanger lines. "It was the day after she had initiated him in the mysteries of sex." - sorry but that just made me cringe and just dropped me right out of the story. The other problem with it is that Tim ended up a bit of a difficult character to like - his motivation in investigating being suspiciously more of a financial benefit for himself might have been okay - even believable - but it did seem to be strongly telegraphing that there was something very very dodgy about Col - more than just an overbearing ego.
But DEATH AMONG THE VINES is a first novel, and first novels are sometimes tricky. It's got a great setting, and it's nice to see some crime fiction out of the towns. There is a good police investigator lurking at the edges, who could have some real potential in a book where he has a chance to hold the focus, and whilst some of the elements of the motivation were a bit predictable, there was some attempt at a twist on the theme which was at least unusual, if not particularly comfortable. The pace of the book could really appeal to people who are looking for something a little on the gentler side.