A man is shot through the head in his Dunedin home while his wife, bound to a chair and struggling to breathe through the gag in her mouth, watches helplessly. The couple’s son returns home to an unthinkably awful scene. Local police, including newly promoted Detective Sam Shephard, soon realise that there must be more to this home invasion than first appearances might suggest.
This is the third book in the four-book series that I’ve read, and while the others haven’t been any slouches this is the best one so far. As she did with Overkill Symon has created the kind of dramatic and memorable opening to a novel that draws you in immediately. Fortunately the plot which follows does not disappoint; it’s a ripper. There are several unpredictable twists and a swag of threads that flow nicely, with Sam Shephard as the unifying element tying it all together. Sam is initially given the job of liaising with the surviving victims of the home invasion, a job she finds increasingly difficult as she is forced to keep going back and intruding on people’s recovery and grief. I thought this was depicted very credibly, with Sam’s boss finding it easy to demand more as he’s not the one having to intrude while Sam has an internal battle, knowing they need more information but also feeling empathy for the family. When Sam’s role expands to other duties she notices some discrepancies in the case that Police are building against their suspects and her working life becomes even more awkward than it usually is given that she doesn’t get along too well with her boss.
Sam is a terrific character, a basically good person and cop who sometimes lets her big mouth get her into trouble (perhaps I like this as it’s a trait I can definitely identify with). She’s also funny and pretty-much devoid of the demons that haunt many fictional detectives (though she is only young and perhaps has time to develop some psychoses of her own). In this outing I thought Symon got the balance of time spent focusing on the case and Sam’s personal life just right, especially as there are a couple of significant personal issues playing out behind the scenes, both of which were handled credibly. There are other good characters too, including Sam’s troubled colleague Smithy and the wives of two of the suspects in the case are both sensitively depicted and a kind of character you don’t see a lot of in crime fiction.
I read this book in two sittings and it was a real joy to read: a fast-paced, engaging and credible story and even the ending did not disappoint (a rarer thing than it should be). I can’t think of too many people who would not get a kick out of meeting Sam and getting lost in a top quality story like this one. I think it would be easy enough to pick the series up with this book (Symon provides enough back story details for you to get a flavour of Sam’s past trials and tribulations) but you could always go back and start at the beginning. The books are even available electronically to people outside Australasia!
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Bound has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise
I’ve reviewed two of the three earlier novels in this series: Overkill and Containment
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My rating 4/5
Author website http://www.vandasymon.com/
Publisher Penguin 
Length 314 pages
Book Series #4 in the Sam Shephard series
Source I borrowed it from Kerrie (thanks)
I was prompted to highlight New Zealand after stumbling across this rather sad little collection of four entries in the New Zealand location index at Stop You’re Killing Me. Now I’m not blaming the fine people at Stop…, it’s a great website and resource for crime fiction fans, but I’m guessing they rely heavily on information from publishers to populate their various lists and I suspect they simply don’t get a lot of material from New Zealand publishers to work with.
Although we’re always at odds in the sporting arena, Aussies and Kiwis do tend to feel quite kindly towards each other on other matters (promise). Both countries are down here at the bottom of the world where it can feel like we are a bit forgotten by that part of the publishing world dealing in the English language which is heavily focussed on US and UK products and markets. So I thought I’d do my bit to promote cross-Tasman crime fiction.
Sadly my own reading of New Zealand crime fiction can’t offer much better than the meagre offerings at Stop… as I have only reviewed 4 books set in New Zealand myself (though I have read a few more in my pre-blogging days):
- Bold Blood by Lindy Kelly, which is an amateur sleuth tale set in the world of international horse eventing. It’s a light, fun tale with a dash of romance and strongly recommended for all the animal lovers.
- Murder in the Second Row by Bev Robitai is a cosy mystery set in a historic theatre in a small New Zealand town. An amateur theatre group’s production of an Agatha Christie play is thrown into disarray when one of the stars is killed in this terrific little cosy mystery.
- Overkill and Containment by Vanda Symon. These are the first and third books in the Sam Shephard series and are very entertaining police procedurals. I have the fourth book in the series, 2011′s Bound. on my TBR pile to read in the next couple of weeks.
Fortunately for you though you don’t have to rely on the meagre offerings of either me or Stop You’re Killing Me. There’s a marvellous resource at your fingertips in the form of Crime Watch, a great blog by Kiwi crime fiction fan Craig Sisterson. Craig discusses crime fiction from all over the world but he does a great job of highlighting New Zealand crime writers in particular. In fact his own contributions to this round of the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme have all highlighted books by New Zealand crime writers (not all of these are set in New Zealand but many are).
Have you read any crime fiction set in New Zealand? Got any recommendations to make?
Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week. Do join in the fun by reading the posts and/or contributing one of your own. You don’t have to write every week.
The third story to feature detective constable Sam Shephard opens memorably as a container ship runs aground near Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island and the contents of several of its containers are strewn across the beach. Sam wakes up to witness locals descending en masse to make off with the spoils and when she tries to break up a dispute between two men arguing over the same box she is knocked unconscious by one of them. The bizarre Sunday morning incident turns out to cause more problems than this for Dunedin police as a skull is among the detritus and later a body is found in deep water nearby.
Sam Shephard is definitely the star of this series, fairly universally described as feisty and not someone who always does the smart thing, though her motives are pure and her heart is definitely in the right place. I like her a lot, being able to relate to someone who doesn’t always shut up even when she knows it would be the sensible thing to do. As well as her complicated work life, where she is in a constant battle with her DI, she has some trials in her personal life and I thought the depiction of her reaction to her Dad’s problems was particularly touching. In this novel some of the supporting cast of characters were more well-drawn than in the first book in the series (2007′s Overkill) especially Sam’s partner Smithy who is struggling with a family crisis at the same time as he works on the complicated cases arising from the container ship’s accident. There are also several minor characters who offer some lightness and humour including Sam’s housemate Maggie and a new friend/suspect Spaz.
The story in Containment is another one of those that at first seems like it will follow a predictable path but then veers off in several surprising ways and I really liked the way the different threads unfolded here. There is the deceptively simple case of the assault on Sam, the attempts to locate all the items ‘salvaged’ from the beach that were part of a wealthy (and apparently extremely gorgeous) immigrant’s household items which were being shipped to his new home and of course the investigation into the murder that resulted in a body being found at sea. In each case the police have several false endings where they think they have found the solution then uncover yet another half-truth being told by one of the players which leads them off into another direction which is very satisfying as a reader (though undoubtedly annoying if you were an actual police officer).
Although I enjoyed the first book in this series I think Containment is a better novel, requiring less credibility stretching and displaying more humour which seems to be in keeping with Sam’s character and the team of Dunedin detectives. I really enjoy Symon’s novel openings which are full of great imagery and are very memorable and her storytelling is engaging (I read this book in one sitting). I could do with a little less concentration on Sam’s relationship woes but this is a minor grizzle about an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable read.
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Containment is one of three novels on the shortlist for New Zealand’s inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, the winner of which will be announced on November 30
So far I’ve only reviewed the first book in the series, Overkill. Containment has also been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise
The fourth novel in this series is called Bound and is due out next February and the author showed us its cover on her blog earlier this week
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My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Penguin 
Length 309 pages
Source I bought it
Author: Vanda Symon
Publisher: Penguin 
No. of pages: 320
The book opens with young mother Gaby Knowes being murdered: the killer threatening Gaby’s baby daughter to ensure the murder goes smoothly. Although Gaby does what she can to leave clues that her death is not the suicide it is supposed to look like, the lone Police Constable in town, Sam Shephard, at first assumes Gaby did take her own life. However discrepancies soon appear and and Sam calls in the assistance of a full investigative team from a nearby city. Shortly afterwards Sam is thrown of the case but continues to investigate matters on her own.
Sam Shepherd is a likable and quite engaging character. She reminds me of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone in many ways. She shares the doggedness and disregard for her own safety in the pursuit of answers and can also be a little childish to her own detriment. Sam had a personal connection to this particular case and the way she dealt with her feelings over the course of the book was very thoughtful. There were a lot of other characters glimpsed but not many were terribly well fleshed out and I thought the book would have benefited from another ‘major’ character to participate in the action and help develop the plot. For me Symon did a better job of depicting the small farming and manufacturing town of Mataurain New Zealand. There’s a nice combination of local flavour and shared traits with isolated communities the world over: people look after their own, are distrustful of strangers and love a good gossip about their neighbours.
In the end the plot held together although I found myself struggling with elements of it during the middle of the story. There were things that didn’t ring true, such as the ferocity with which Sam was removed from the case and the interactions between Sam and the murdered woman’s husband who is Sam’s own ex lover. Possibly due to everything being told from Sam’s perspective there were parts of the story that were undeveloped. Why, for example, were Sam’s colleagues so willing to accept the possibility of her own guilt when, normally, Police are slow to accept the guilt of ‘one of their own’? However the last third of the book was quite a page turner and the ultimate resolution was both well crafted and very credible.
Overall this was an entertaining debut novel and I will certainly look for the next in the series which looks to move Sam to a bigger city which is a smart move on the part of Symon as there’s a limit to how many interesting crimes can take place in a small town (Cabot Cove excluded of course).
My rating 3.5/5
Reviewed by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise