Blood River, Tony Cavanaugh
There are plenty of books around that read a bit like a script in the making, and a lot of them don't work. And then there's BLOOD RIVER that reads like a script in the making, and a most unusual crime fiction novel, that works. Oh boy does it work. Tony Cavanaugh is the author of the stonkingly good Darian Richards novels so it shouldn't come as much surprise that BLOOD RIVER is good, but it came as considerable surprise just how damn good it is.
Set in different time zones, centred, in the main around the stories of two very different women, the novel starts out in 1999 when Lara Ocean is the youngest detective in Brisbane's murder squad, a twenty-something year old part Asian woman with dyed blonde hair to boot. She's had a chequered history until joining the police force, and past encounters come back to haunt her when a number of men are discovered around the city, horrendously and violently murdered. Jennifer White is the 17 year old schoolgirl found guilty of these murders, on the flimsiest evidence, with the possibility that Lara's old partner, Billy, coincidentally the oldest detective in the squad at the time providing a helping hand to the investigation.
Move forward nearly 20 years and Lara is now the Police Commissioner, Billy has retired from the force, and Jennifer is finally paroled and the case that has never sat well with Lara gets even more complicated. Jennifer struggles on the outside mostly because of the publicity around her conviction, and the grotesque and gruesome nature of the crimes she was found guilty of. Never mind that she has been denied parole multiple times because of her constant assertions of innocence, there's been plenty of pressure on the parole board by a right-wing power hungry, unscrupulous politician along the way.
The different time lines, and the backgrounds of Lara, Billy and Jennifer are all drawn out against the worst fear that Jennifer has - that once she's out, the real killer will strike again, using her freedom as the perfect cover. This is a big part of what is so compelling about BLOOD RIVER, it's nothing new to explore the past and present of characters, but in this example we have Jennifer with no opportunity for much of a past, who is such a big part of the other character's lives, and continues to be so. Both Lara and Billy have had difficult upbringings, difficult paths to the police force, and much different outcomes once there. Lara, as her current role of Commissioner shows, rose to that position through hard work and perseverance. Billy was more old-school, just as likely to thump a suspect to force a confession as play by the rule book, he nonetheless had a long career and taught Lara a lot about investigative technique and thinking.
Whilst these personal stories are playing out, it's never possible to forget there is a real killer out there, and the occasional glimpse into their mind is informative without being voyeuristic, working more as a reminder, than revelling.
Which leads us into the question of the cinematic nature of BLOOD RIVER. Possibly because it's such an unusual idea, but mostly because this is a novel dripping with visual clues and leads, there is much in BLOOD RIVER that screams script. The characters are brilliant, unusual and conflicting. The "murderer" is a source of considerable compassion and sympathy, whilst the police, normally the good guys, are questionable and flawed. The weather provides a closed in, dark and brooding menace as the constant lurking flooding threatens to wipe away everything, and the different time lines provide all sorts of opportunities to consider how acceptable standards change over time.
Having said that, BLOOD RIVER works as a novel first and foremost. It's compelling, creepy, compulsive reading. It's one of those ones where you're going to think you know what's going on so often, only to wonder what on earth you could have been thinking a few pages on. It's utterly brilliant, and the reveal, when it arrives, is more than enough to make you wonder about people all over again.
Brisbane 1999. It's hot. Stormy. Dangerous. The waters of the Brisbane River are rising.
The rains won't stop. People's nerves are on edge. And then...
A body is found.
And then another.
A string of seemingly ritualized but gruesome murders. All the victims are men. Affluent. Guys with nice houses, wives and kids at private schools. All have had their throats cut.
Tabloid headlines shout, THE VAMPIRE KILLER STRIKES AGAIN!
Detective Sergeant Lara Ocean knows the look. The 'my-life-will-never-be-the-same-again look'. She's seen it too many times on too many faces. Telling a wife her husband won't be coming home. Ever again. Telling her the brutal way he was murdered. That's a look you never get used to.
Telling a mother you need her daughter to come to the station for questioning. That's another look she doesn't want to see again.
And looking into the eyes of a killer, yet doubting you've got it right. That's the worst look of all - the one you see in the mirror. Get it right, you're a hero and the city is a safer place. Get it wrong and you destroy a life. And a killer remains free. Twenty years down the track, Lara Ocean will know the truth.