DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER is the book that won Penguin's last Most Wanted Crime Writing competition, and there's a comment in the acknowledgements that explain a little about the development of the book:
"I owe a debt to Robert Sessions, Penguin Australia's Publishing Director, who overcame his initial shock at being confronted with a manuscript knocked out on an old manual typewriter...."
The reason for highlighting this is that whilst reading DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER was a very enjoyable overall experience, the book is made up of a series of short, sharp chapters, which gives the book a sense of rapidity of movement. It made the book extremely easy to read, particularly given that, as a period piece, it provided fictional entertainment as well as a real-life glimpse at Colonial Sydney life. A really good sense of place and time, as well as the incorporation of true historical alongside fictional characters bought early Sydney to life very vividly whilst just flat out telling a great story.
Set in 1828 Sydney, that story starts with the murder of a colony soldier. Governor Ralph Darling is not pleased, but as the killing's continue and get more violent, he's forced to put his faith in the investigative ability of Nicodemus Dunne. Dunne is an ex-Bow Street Runner, transported to Australia, he now makes his living as a running patterer - reading / reciting the news for people in the colony without access to newspapers because of lack of time, cost or illiteracy. Not only does he have the ability and skills to track down the killer, he also has the contacts, working in the streets, the pubs and the back areas of Sydney daily. Add to that, the perfect cover - few notice a man who is always around, a man who is expected to be interested in "the news". As Dunne searches he finds there are a lot of secrets in the newly formed colony and he's quickly under threat himself. Luckily there is the bonus of an increasing attraction to the charming seamstress Rachel Dormin.
There's nothing like something different to pique the interest of the dedicated crime fiction reader. DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER hits that originality mark in a number of ways. Partly the setting - 1828 Sydney isn't commonly used and in this book it's done particularly well. The interweaving of the characters and the fledgling city sit together well, with glimpses of the pubs, the brothels, the newspaper offices, and the day to day living giving the story a depth of setting to work in. The characters - both the fictional and the real - are interesting, frequently fun and definitely involving. From the Pieman and his lunatic attempts at various records, to the dour Governor Darling, as well as Nicodemus Dunne they live in the city created in this book in a very natural way. There's a real sense of the society trying to come to terms with the Colonial background, to create an identity of its own. At the same time, there's constant acknowledgement of where many of the players come from - their backgrounds are sketched out, providing a real sense of moving on from the past. The brief glimpses of the awful treatment of the indigenous peoples, and yet their willingness to help / befriend the incomers is nicely balanced.
Already mentioned, the use of the short, sharp chapter layout adds both a readability and pace to the book, which was rather surprising and noticeable (the acknowledgement actually provided a possible explanation). Overall you can really see why DEATH AND THE RUNNING PATTERER won the Penguin Most Wanted Competition. Let's hope they run the same competition again, but in the meantime another Nicodemus Dunne outing wouldn't go astray.