Wild Card, Simon Rowell

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Will confess to being more than a bit pleased when WILD CARD, the second DS Zoe Mayer (and her service dog Harry) novel arrived. The initial outing - THE LONG GAME - had all the hallmarks of a long, and good series in the making, and the follow-up does nothing to dispel that belief.

Starting out in a very atmospheric location (if you ignore the dead body lying in burnt-out grassland beside the banks of the Murray River), Mayer, Harry and Charlie Shaw have arrived from Melbourne in response to the shooting death of Freddie Jones, a bikie from the other side of the river in Moama, New South Wales.

The kookaburras, lost in the spring fog, laughed at one another across the water, as if in some maniacal game of hide and seek. With red gums crowding against the banks, the Murray River arced around on itself at this spot just out of Echuca, nature having changed her mind. Zoe Mayer, standing on the outside of the bend, could look both upstream and downstream with a tilt of her head. Her boss, Rob Loretti, had woken her at some ungodly hour. It had taken Zoe and her partner, Charlie Shaw, the best part of three hours to make the drive north from Melbourne, speeding through towns whose streets were deserted at that early hour.

Mayer, Shaw, Jarrah Walters and Mary McDonald, and tactical intelligence officer Anjali Arya are a close-knit working unit, introduced, along with service dog Harry and the rest of the main characters in the first novel. It won't matter if you haven't read it, but you really should, not just because it fills in the details of what's happened to Mayer in the past, and why Harry is with her every step of the way (there are clues in this outing, so you won't be left at sea).

The complications in this investigation however, are more than just the cross-jurisdictions, or even the tight local communities. A dig around on the NSW side of the river raises disquiet about the relationship between the victim, his two closest fellow bikies Ben Cutlass and Wally Galvin, and local cop Mick Kovacks. Kovacks prides himself on his rules of operation for the bikie gang - no illegal activity in the town and no aggro as a result. Meanwhile Kovacks sister is looking to restart a stalled journalism career but there's tension between the siblings for some reason. Add to that a lot of complicated connections between the townsfolk, and people in nearby locations like Shepparton and it's a lot for the team to come to grips with in a hurry. To say nothing of a dark speedboat travelling at speed on the river at night, proceeded by a drone, Senior Constable Jen Owens and the photos she keeps showing up in, and the vegetable growers in the area outside Moama. A second body showing up in the same location as the first would seem to complicate the issue even more, but is actually the catalyst to allow Mayer and her team to blow some of that fog out of the way at last.

Anybody living around regional towns in Victoria will have heard of the problems with meth and the fallout that the drug has on communities, and for years now there's been talk of the drug cartels around the Riverina district and in and around the Murray. There's been plenty of bikie gangs, alleged Mafia connections and more than a few missing people over those years as well, so the background to WILD CARD fits, and its execution is perfect in terms of how a group of outsider "big city cops" would feel arriving in a town where the connections go back generations, and the stories are part of local legend. Mayer, Shaw and the rest of the team slowly work their way through those stories as a way of trying to understand who is who, and how the deaths of two men, in the same location, could be connected. 

Along the way you discover even more about this group of work colleagues, and friends, and you'll find that this is an author unafraid to surprise and shock a reader. Not I hasten to add, anything to do with Harry. He knows not to harm a hair on the dog's body, right down to the understandable / accepted by all swing Mayer takes at somebody who looks like they might be about to launch a kick in Harry's direction.

There is really a lot to like about these two novels. The characterisations are strong, the flaws touching and very human. The relationships between this group of colleagues are realistic, and Mayer's reaction to the slower pace, and gentler lifestyle (not withstanding murders and drugs) of a small country town on the side of the wonderful Murray River believable. 

In the end, WILD CARD only had one downside to it. It demanded, and was read, in a day. Now I'm going to be twiddling my thumbs, waiting, with not a hint of pretend patience, for the next book in the series. 

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One foggy morning on the banks of the Murray River, a body is found in a burnt-out area of grassland. The heavily tattooed victim, who has suffered two bullet wounds to the head, is identified as Freddie Jones, a bikie from Moama.

Detective Sergeant Zoe Mayer is on the case, alongside her trusty service dog, Harry. Although Zoe is determined to track down the murderer, she finds herself stonewalled at every turn—by Freddie’s family, his associates and even the local police. But then a second body is discovered, and soon all bets are off…

Review Wild Card, Simon Rowell
Karen Chisholm
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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