Book review: Labyrinth of Drowning

I recently completed several book reviews for Sisters in Crime, the first of which was by award winning author Alex Palmer.

Speaking of awards, my novel The Half-Child is in the running in this year’s Davitt Awards and has been nominated in the 2011 Ned Kelly Awards for crime fiction. Very tough fields in both cases. But maybe by reviewing award winning novelists, some of the shine will rub off…

Back cover blurb

Two years have passed since top cop Paul Harrigan walked away from the New South Wales Police Force to be his own man. Since then his life has been a gift and his home—with his partner Agent Grace Riordan and their daughter—a sanctuary.

When a trafficked sex-worker is found brutally murdered in Sydney bushland, it should be just work for Grace. But the murder is too savage. And someone is watching them—perhaps Harrigan’s old enemies, who want their pound of flesh.

When Grace’s boss pushes her into a sting to catch the sex-worker’s murderer, it becomes a question of who is being hunted. Who, in the end, is going to be left looking into the eyes of a killer with no place to hide?

My review

I hadn’t read either of Alex Palmer’s first two, award-winning novels. So when the opportunity came to review her third, I jumped at the chance.

It’s a challenge for an author to write in such a way that any book in a series can be picked up and appreciated by someone who hasn’t read the previous titles. For me, Palmer pulled this off: I got that Paul and Grace had history without needing to know the details, my only minor gripe being their young daughter’s age isn’t specified.

Palmer successfully sustains parallel narratives as Paul and Grace undertake overlapping investigations. The Labyrinth of Drowning is densely plotted and although I was able to follow the story, I had to read back over one or two key scenes to be reassured all the various plot threads had been resolved.

However, I never did figure out the significance of the title.

What I found most admirable about the novel is that Palmer allows Paul and Grace to have a functional relationship and a family life, neither of which are commonplace in police procedurals or detective novels. They make convincing good guys, balanced and disciplined, albeit tempered by fire: Grace is the survivor of a brutal attack and Paul the father of a son with a disability.

I found the bad guys less convincing, but likely as not this reflects my own bias, being more interested in the political than the pathological origins of violence.

That said, I particularly liked the scene where Paul sits in his study, reflecting on why he is drawn to the Black Paintings of Spanish painter Francisco Goya. ‘Their savage and bizarre satire spoke strongly to his experiences of dealing with the lunacy people inflicted daily on themselves and each other.’

I was reminded of my late grandfather, an ex-cop and former NSW Crown Prosecutor, who struggled when he turned defence lawyer because he ‘knew the bastards were guilty.’

The Labyrinth of Drowning by Alex Palmer is published by Harper Collins.

This review has been submitted as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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