Black River, Matthew Spencer

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

Not so long ago, you couldn't move for serial killer novels, and a lot of readers (including this one) were over them. Since then the "popularity" does seem to have waned, and there's a marked tendency to make that those that do show up - very good indeed. As it was with BLACK RIVER which turned out to be an absolute page-turner.

Based in Sydney, in geographic locations, and a central character's backstory that seems to have more than a few echoes with the author's, this is the story of the mysterious deaths of a number of young women, their bodies having been discovered along the banks of the Parramatta River. Until this latest one, where the body of a young woman is found in the deserted grounds of an elite Sydney boarding school. It's they way in which her body was wrapped in black plastic before being dumped that connects her to the previous killings, rather than the sexual assaults, and the river, or so it seems.

The victim this time is a resident within the college - the daughter of one of the staff members, and her body was found by the young son of one of the college families. Initially there's a bit of doubt that the taskforce covering the "Blue Moon Killer" murders will include this death in their investigation, the similarities not being quite as strong as they would like, but doubt eventually loses out, and DS Rose Riley, and the rest of the taskforce, take on the tricky task of adding this death to the list they already have. Made slightly more interesting by the discovery that journalist, Adam Bowman, has been sneaking around the grounds of the school, taking a photograph that ended up on the front cover of the newspaper he works for, outing himself as an ex-resident of the school, suggesting a potential suspect to the taskforce.

The idea that a taskforce investigating a serial killer would end up co-operating with a journalist like Bowman actually worked really well, despite the nagging doubt about his potential involvement. His knowledge of the school grounds, and the way that his past gives him an in with the school community help though, as does the idea that carefully leaked information might be just the thing to rile up and flush their killer from his careful, considered, cautious approach. This is a killer who seems very up to date with forensic techniques, very methodical and careful. The fact that these also seem like random unconnected killings is making any thoughts of catching him increasingly desperate.

The entire cast of characters here is really well done, especially as the focus is on pace and plot for most of it. It seems there's some intention to build a series around Rose Riley and that bodes really well - she's a great character, and one would hope that Bowman will make a return as a sidekick. The sense of place is well done - even without knowing anything about that area of Sydney you could easily get a feel for the way that the river dominates, and how such an exclusive, and well equipped school fitted in. The idea that Bowman has his own past with the location - over and above simply growing up there gave credence to his persona as a slightly damaged, obsessive sort of a character - all of which increased the lingering suspicion about his involvement. But his doggedness, combined with that of Riley, and her ability to remain utterly focused on the job at hand worked, and created a very believable team.

Heaps of pace, lots of potential suspects, a really good cast with some human fallibility, and a serial killer slightly at arms length, made BLACK RIVER a welcome addition to the Australian Crime Fiction scene. Here's hoping that series does come to fruition.


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Year of Publication

A long, burning summer in Sydney. A young woman found murdered in the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. A serial killer preying on victims along the banks of the Parramatta River. A city on edge.

Adam Bowman, a battling journalist who grew up as the son of a teacher at Prince Albert College, might be the only person who can uncover the links between the school murder and the 'Blue Moon Killer'. But he will have to go into the darkest places of his childhood to piece together the clues. Detective Sergeant Rose Riley, meanwhile, is part of the taskforce desperately trying to find the killer before he strikes again. Adam Bowman's excavation of his past might turn out to be Rose's biggest trump card or it may bring the whole investigation crashing down, and put her own life in danger.

Review Black River, Matthew Spencer
Karen Chisholm
Monday, November 28, 2022

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