Blood on Vines, Madeleine Eskedahl
The opening novel in The Matakana Series, New Zealand based, Swedish born author Madeleine Eskedahl has set this story in one of the true gems of NZ locations, one that obviously means a lot to her. Matakana is a picturesque small town, increasingly devoted to wine growing, farmers markets, roadside stalls, close enough to Auckland to be a tourist destination, but with more than enough people turning it into a lifestyle home location as well.
Making the action in BLOOD ON VINES even more of a contrast between the idyllic location, and a series of violent murders, starting out with an ex-wine maker some distance away, the discovery of a dismembered limb under a local house, and the slow picking off, one by one, of a set of old friends.
A debut novel, the intended series behind this has much in the way of atmosphere and setting to play with in the choice of location and community. The small town local cop tasked with investigating what starts out as the discovery of a dismembered limb under the house of a local winemaker (and good friend), sets up a central character Bill, and his off-sider Niko as the cops who go from policing a bit of raucous holiday making to an odd series of murders pretty seamlessly. The sense of small town interactions is really strong here with the personal connections between threatened people and Bill and his (unsurprisingly perhaps) Swedish wife Annika. This is a place where everybody kind of knows everybody, and that's part of where threats can appear, and equally hide, in plain sight.
Despite the slightly cosy feeling to all of this set up, the prologue of BLOOD ON VINES introduces a particularly gruesome series of murders, right from the outset. Things do take a while to get going after that, as the characters, place and many of the elements that you could assume are going to be part of the ongoing series get established. There are lots of little side excursions and character setups going on - and maybe exercise some caution if you're at all hungry, the Swedish cooking, in particular is very enticing, although some of the dialogue was a tiny bit stilted, with a sense of formality that didn't always flow as quickly and naturally as this reader would have liked. But that's a minor quibble in a story that's an interesting and challenging juxtaposition of many cosier elements (home / family / food / community / chat) with the gruesome nature of the killings.
Littered with twists and turns, BLOOD ON VINES is one of those novels that will have you second guessing both motive and killer identity again and again. From the slowish start, things to start to develop some pace as the story progresses, and all the characters are placed into their positions in the community. There's some genuine feeling of threat and menace and that twisting turning plot works pretty well.
All in all, an interesting debut in a series that will be perfect for those that prefer a slightly cosier / chattier style, but aren't put off by some gruesome, but not gratuitous, detail.
Four friends, a shared past, a common enemy.
In New Zealand's Martinborough, an ex-wine maker is murdered. The precise planning and execution by the unknown assailant begin a series of vile attacks.
Meanwhile north of Auckland, the long, hot summer is over and the tourists have left the Matakana wine country. A tranquil atmosphere descends and warm autumnal winds sweep across the grape-laden valleys.
With the harvest due, grapes sit bursting upon the manicured vines awaiting the pick. Within this vista of peace, a rampage of death is about to rock the local community to its core.
Will it be their shared history that sees the four friends being picked off one-by-one?