Review - Pancake Money, Finn Bell
Finn Bell made quite an impact on the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards with two shortlistings - his first novel DEAD LEMONS in Best First Novel, and PANCAKE MONEY in Best Crime Novel. Grouped together as The Far South Series, these aren't series books as such, so you can read them in any order, but read them you most definitely should.
PANCAKE MONEY features police detective Bobby Ress, who did have a cameo appearance in DEAD LEMONS. He's a straight-forward sort of cop, loves his wife and daughter, has a successful marriage even though they married young and everyone said it wouldn't last. He's also from a straight-forward sort of a place where mostly people are law abiding, and life is uncomplicated even tranquil. Which makes the way that people start dying even more horrific than what are some pretty horrific ways to die. The case is bad enough at that level as far as Ress is concerned, but it's the way that he must confront some uncomfortable truths about human behaviour that is really doing his head in.
PANCAKE MONEY is a traditional police procedural in structure, but as with Bell's earlier books, it's his ability to build characters who are accessible and believable into plots that often lurch into controlled frenzy that really stands out. Ress is paired up with another very approachable, very likeable Pacific Islander policeman - Pollo Latu. Both men are happy men, content with their lot, which contrasts elegantly against the brutality that they must confront. Even as somebody is torturing and killing local clergymen in increasingly bizarre ways, there's nothing expected about the plot which is driven forward strongly, and balanced beautifully with the very human reactions of these two interesting cops.
The dialogue is spot on as well, particularly between the two characters who wise-crack and short-hand their way through some pretty horrible stuff. They obviously care about each other, and their respective families but it's not delivered in an overt manner. There's a connection between these two that's palpable, there's also a connection between them and the place that they live in that's completely believable.
Ultimately what's really good about both books by Finn Bell is that this is an author who can spin a yarn. He sets up a sense of place and character that gives the reader an immersive experience without labouring the point. He's got well delivered plot elements that combine pace and forward drive with strong dialogue and he gives permission to the reader to extrapolate their own theories on who did it along with the cops. He's also brave enough to go into some difficult territory, giving any reader edging towards complacency a darn good wake up call when required. Having been lucky enough to read DEAD LEMONS first there was plenty of promise there, and PANCAKE MONEY delivered on every required element.
Bobby Ress is a cop.
He believes in God and making a difference.
He loves his wife and he loves his daughter.
He has a place in the world.
Then people start dying, a lot of them, in horrible ways. And step by gruesome step the simple, true things Bobby knew to be right and good begin to make less and less sense. His partner Pollo tells him he's being too much of a boy scout to be a cop. His wife, Em tells him he should stop being a cop. And Bobby doesn't know what to tell his daughter anymore.
Because Bobby is learning about pain. He doesn't like to admit it. He doesn't like to know, but he does now. If you hurt someone bad enough for long enough then there's nothing, absolutely nothing, they won't do.