It is all too rare that we in the UK can read some of the great Australian crime fiction currently being published. I write “great” because of all the wonderful reviews I read on the Australian (mainly) blogs devoted to the subject. I've loved Peter Temple (Jack Irish and more) and Adrian Hyland (Diamond Dove), for example, and have enjoyed the first two by Michael Robotham – who although Australian sets his books in the UK. Although some more authors are being published over here and/or are available on Amazon, there are many that aren’t – see the Crime Down Under Australian crime fiction database and this reading group for plenty of examples.
One author who is regularly recommended by crime-fiction bloggers and other reviewers is P. D. Martin, so I was very pleased to see a copy of her debut, Body Count (publisher, Mira), in my last visit to Murder One, and snapped it up.
Sophie Anderson is an Australian, working for the FBI as a profiler in their famous Quantico offices. As the book opens, she takes part in a joint operation with the Washington, DC, police to capture a serial killer, an exciting few chapters that provide a (seemingly) authentic view of an FBI operation in detail, and allow us to become acquainted with the engaging Sophie and her colleagues.
We also learn, however, that when she was a young child, Sophie’s brother John was abducted. Not only did the infant Sophie have a premonition of this horrifying event, but in a nightmare she experiences the kidnapping and subsequent events from the perpetrator’s perspective, feeling his sense of enjoyment. Determined to dedicate her life to helping victims of criminals, twenty-five years later she is an admired and respected profiler. Of course, she and the reader know that the reason for Sophie’s ability to accurately profile offenders is because of this psychic ability.
Unfortunately, clichés of the genre being what they are, the plot of the book is apparent very early on. Sophie has a best friend among her colleagues, Samantha (aka Sam). The team is overworked because resources have been diverted to combating terrorism in the wake of 9/11, so the case of the “Washington slasher” is passed to Sam and Sophie to profile. Inevitably, via Sophie’s nightmares, the reader has to share her re-enactment of the horrible ways in which this person tortures and kills. Equally inevitably, Sam and Sophie (both attractive, fit young women, of course) become targets of the killer as they are similar in several ways to the earlier victims. For me, this aspect of the book is deeply unpleasant, as the basis for the suspense is not only the fact that women are being tortured and raped, but that it is probable that one of the two friends is going to suffer this fate, and that we are going to have to experience these events through the mind of the other one. I really do not find this entertaining in any sense: to the contrary.
This having been said, the book does not fall into the category of “torture porn” that has made me fail to complete, or not even start, other books on these topics. The tale is told briskly and without dwelling too much on the gory details – but they are horrible.
It is obvious very quickly, and well before anyone in the FBI taskforce cottons on, that the villain is going to be someone working on their team. In another weakness, I knew the identity of the villain on the first appearance of this character – I am not sure why I clicked straight away, but I did - so for me there was no suspense in the eventual revelation of which character this was and how they had evaded suspicion.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to be unduly negative about the book. Its strongest aspects are in the details of the investigation – how the FBI team teases out hard clues from a profile and follows them all up in order to narrow down the options to identify a chief suspect. The story is told at a fast pace in an easy style, and the protagonist is an attractive character, although her mystic intuition is far stronger than her ability to add two and two together in the here-and-now, and she’s a bit too susceptible to a handsome guy. Although at the end of the day the subject-matter was not to my taste, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone looking for an exciting thriller to take on holiday or to pass away a couple of hours, if you don’t mind the subject matter described here. The novel easily stands up there with Karin Slaughter and earlier (i.e. good) books by Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman. And it’s better than many others in this rather crowded subgenre.
P. D. Martin bibliography (official author website).
Review of the next in the Sophie Anderson series, The Murderers' Club, at Reactions to Reading.