This was Howell’s first book and launched the Ella Marconi series, which has reached its 8th volume (so far). Set in Sydney, Australia – I place I have recently come to know and love – this is a tense thriller set across five days involving bank robbers, police corruption, murder and kidnapping. The latter element makes this book as much about the parents, Sophie and Chris, as the investigator and indeed Marconi does tend to recede in the background. But this is an unusual book in many ways, remarkably tough on its very, very flawed characters.
I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, hosted today by Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack.
“Sophie took short shallow breaths. She looked at the detectives. These were the people in charge of finding her son. She’d already forgotten their names.”
There is one thing that I feel I should spoil from the outset and some of you may wish to look away. To me this was crucial to my ability to get through the book at all. First and foremost, this is a story about what people will do when their child is taken away from them – heroes, villains, cops and civilians alike. Thus the snatching of 10-month old Lachlan Phillips drives the plot. I never enjoy stories in which children are put in serious jeopardy – nobody does, it’s the point. But in a conventional thriller-whodunit like this one, you want to be held in suspense, of course, but if the child were harmed I wouldn’t be able to finish the book without hating it.
So here is the spoiler – ready?
… you can enjoy the suspense because the kid makes it out completely unharmed.
OK, phew, spoiler over – let’s move on!
Chris is a cop who seems to be suffering from some kind of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted during an arrest. He and Sophie are barely speaking, which foolishly drove her, for one night only, into the arms of Angus, Chris’ partner. Now she is racked with guilt, fearful he will discover her indiscretion, which makes matters even more. On top of that, it is rumoured that a gang of bank robbers active in Sydney may in fact be made up of crooked cops – and Chris seems really disturbed about this. One night while Sophie is out working, Chris is shot in the head and their baby kidnapped. Marconi is investigating and has a mass of red herrings and side issues to get through – is Chris linked with the bank robberies? Has he been cheating on Sophie? Why is he lying to the police? What about a car crash involving a public official with a car full of cash – is it linked? What about the plastic surgeon who blames Sophie (she’s a paramedic) for the recent loss of his wife and baby – is he responsible?
“Ella watched the firefighters roll up the hoses and sighed. Where was the big case, the one that would envelop her, the one she could attack with passion and drive?”
At the same time, we start to question Marconi’s abilities. When one of the robbers, who was shot during the raid, is hospitalised she goes to interview him and the man, who hints at high level police corruption, is literally killed under her nose and the killer gets away; and what about an arson attack she is meant to be handling but which she drops now that she has something meatier to handle. Is she really the hero? The traumatised Sophie then turns into a vigilante and kidnaps and tortures the man she holds responsible, though in fact she is wrong and the poor individual is completely innocent and has, in fact, suffered much more than she has in the last few days. But the baby is all that matters, no matter how many people die in the process. And what about Chris’ unwillingness to cooperate with the authorities? Incidentally, although shot in head, he survives and checks himself out of hospital the next day (no, I didn’t buy that either).
I do admire Howell’s willingness to show her protagonists in a poor light (Sophie and Chris really do behave with a stunning lack of common sense throughout) and not really let them off the hook, though it did mean that I didn’t much like any of the characters either. There are too many red herrings and a bit too much time devoted to the activities of paramedics (the author’s former profession), so once again this is a book that felt like it could easily have been a bit shorter. None the less, this remains distinctive for the unvarnished approach to character and its exploration of the theme of the stolen child is particularly well thought through – so well worth a look I would say.
Special thanks to TracyK for introducing me to this series over at her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery. Incidentally, she liked it even more than I did, but gives away much less of the story.
The Ella Marconi series
- Frantic (2007)
- The Darkest Hour (2008)
- Cold Justice (2010)
- Violent Exposure (2010)
- Silent Fear (2012)
- Web Of Deceit (2013)
- Deserving Death (2014)
- Tell the Truth (2015)
The author’s website can be found at: www.katherinehowell.com/