Candice Fox announced herself as an Australian crime writer to watch with her Ned Kelly Award winning debut Hades, followed up a year later by its award winning sequel Eden. The Archer and Beckett series took a couple of fairly recent crime fiction tropes (including the serial killer cop) but Fox made them completely her own. After a shortlisted third in the series and a humdrum collaboration with one-man crime fiction factory James Paterson, Fox launches what is potentially a new series with Crimson Lake. And is, in a few words, absolutely back on form.
Crimson Lake is a small tropical town outside of Cairns. It is where Ted Conkaffey has gone to ground after his life fell apart. Conkaffey was a policeman, charged with the brutal assault on a teenage girl but never convicted. He continues to protest his innocence but is scarred by his experience on the other side of the justice system and, not cleared of the crime, is still suspected of being a paedophile. His lawyer hooks him up with local detective Amanda Pharrell. Amanda is in some ways more damaged than Ted, having spent ten years in prison for stabbing a fellow teenager to death. Amanda has been hired to investigate the disappearance and possible death of a local writer who has made it big on the international scene with a series of quasi-religious post-apocalyptic thrillers.
There is so much crime here it is hard to know where to start. From the disappearance and possible suicide by crocodile of author Jake Scully, to Conkaffey’s case through to what really happened to Amanda. But Fox juggles the various plot lines and backstories masterfully. The majority of the narrative is from Ted’s post-traumatic point of view. With some creepy fan letters thrown in to up the tension but also throw some light on one of the book’s themes - the sometimes toxic nature of fandom.
Fox excels at the interpersonal relationship of her protagonists. Just when you though the Archer/Beckett relationship was weird, she ups the ante with Conkaffey and Pharrell. While both are dealing with their own particular issues, the thing that makes their partnership work is their widely divergent investigative styles. Conkaffey, ex-police is methodical and considered while Amanda has a serious disregard for the law and an almost Holmesian ability to make and act on lightning deductions. As always, Fox litters their world with rounded minor characters including the local coroner, Scully’s wife and son and Fabia an investigative journalist after Conkaffey.
Overall, Crimson Lake is top notch Australian crime fiction. The main characters are flawed but relatable, the plotting, full of the requisite red herrings, is tight, and the climax, complete with vigilantes, tropical storms and crocodiles as extremely satisfying. While Crimson Lake will stand on its own, another book or two featuring Conkaffey and Pharrell seems inevitable and will be anticipated.