Review - Dead Lemons, Finn Bell
When reviewing Best Crime entrant PANCAKE MONEY, the second book from Finn Bell in the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards(link is external), I wasn't aware that DEAD LEMONS had won Best First Novel. Not even slightly surprised to be honest. These are both very good books.
As mentioned then, these novels are grouped together as "The Far South Series" the grouping coming from location rather than any connection between characters and storylines so whilst you absolutely should read them both, you can do that in any order you like.
The central character named Finn (I'm going to assume not completely autobiographical...) is a complicated man, trying to rebuild a complicated life. In a wheelchair after a bad accident, he's got some seriously big demons from his past and his present to deal with. The past disappearance of a young girl and her father seem like a bit of distraction therapy, as he moves into an abandoned house, starts to explore the local community, and come to grips with some big mistakes made. Helping him come to terms with the drunken car accident that put him in the chair, the subsequent break up of his marriage and most of his friendships, is local therapist Betty, the professional help he obviously desperately needs. Helping him with more local issues is hairdresser Patricia who guides him in getting to know the personalities and history of the town, but would he listen when everybody warned him to stay the hell away from the weird neighbours down the road? There's much in the broken, repentant character of now that reflects the bull-headed, determined character of the past. So stick his nose in he does, and the expected personal jeopardy he deals with is complicated by his confinement to a wheelchair in some rather unexpected ways.
Part of the strength of DEAD LEMONS is the restrained, dry sense of gallows humour. Even when Finn is at his most extreme jeopardy it's hard not to laugh at some of the predicaments he's gotten himself into, and the slightly bizarre ways he rescues himself, or at the very least protects himself, until help arrives. That's not to say that it's all humour, with some confronting aspects woven into this story, including as is required by convention, a warning about some animal cruelty that's short, sharp and brutal. As is some of the treatment dished out to Finn, as he discovers more about a place that he seems to have become reluctantly attached to along the way.
The plot here is believable, complex without being complicated, fitting nicely into a small town, surrounded by a rural area, populated by people who know everyone, have secrets, and are darn good at keeping them to themselves. You will have to accept the odd bump and jolt along the way with some motivations for events not being as seamless as it could be, but as a stranger in a strange place, Finn works as a catalyst for discovering the truth, partly because he doesn't want to let sleeping dogs lie, and partly because he seems like a character who will do anything to avoid confronting his own problems.
As the blurb puts it "Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance." Readers are all too often left wondering which one he gets to choose, and which one he deserves.
In the far south a young girl goes missing, lost without trace in the wilderness beyond her remote family cottage. A year later her father disappears in the same place. Then nothing. At all. Eventually the years grow over the grief. The decades wear away the questions, life flows past the forgotten tragedy.
Until Finn moves into the abandoned home, looking for a fresh start.
A place to heal himself far from his old problems. But rebuilding life is complicated by chance encounters and odd occurrences leaving Finn with the growing suspicion that the people here are harboring a terrible secret. Suspicion turns to obsession the deeper Finn digs while also facing steadily escalating dangers in the here-and-now. Soon Finn's own journey of recovery becomes inextricably linked with his need to unravel the mystery. Past and present finally collide when Finn starts to learn the truth about this place and himself. Now he must choose between exoneration and condemnation, justice and vengeance.