Review: Overkill by Vanda Symon from Orenda Books

Antipodean noir. Compelling characters, thought provoking story, gripping and tense throughout. A heady mix for an excellently crafted thriller.

All the buy links you need are at Orenda’s website page for Overkill

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First published over a decade ago in Vanda Symons native New Zealand, Overkill was brought to the UK last year by the wonderful Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, demonstrating impeccable taste as always. Not by design, but Vanda is the third Antipodean crime writer I’ve encountered recently whose work has been published on our shores. All women, all fantastic books. I’ve talked a lot in recent reviews about representation, and it’s heartening to see that more and more women are being published. A wander around your local bookshop is all the evidence you need of improvement. Not to say that we have gender equality in publishing, there is a lot of work to be done, but progress should be lauded. As always though, its indie publishers by and large who are leading from the front and putting their money where their mouth is to challenge the status quo.

Overkill is the first in Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard series, following the recent UK publication of book two (also from Orenda), The Ringmaster, and all the positivity surrounding it I wanted to get in on the action and see what all the fuss was about and so as I prefer to do, I started back at the beginning. Our story opens with a sequence which is the literary equivalent of a punch in the face, I do mean that as a good thing. No slow build here, we go straight in at full speed. A clear statement of intent, this isn’t going to be a comfortable story, you’re left with no doubt that Vanda is willing to go to some dark places and that sense of foreboding stays with you as you take in the unfolding tale.

Sam is a police officer, with sole charge for a small New Zealand town called Mataura. As the only officer in the town routinely, Sam is a trusted figure in the community. And the first person called when Gabby Knowes is discovered missing by her husband Lockie, with a suspected suicide note left behind. To make matters more complicated Sam and Lockie have a colorful past, which comes back to haunt her.

Taking in issues of small town and rural life in New Zealand, Vanda evokes a sense of place and community that is essential to the story’s success. You are with these people, you empathise with their challenges. Building that empathy is what makes the story so successful, you understand why these events would rock a small community and as the twists start to reveal themselves you even understand why people would take drastic steps to protect their secrets. That understanding isn’t necessarily comfortable as a reader, but its an essential element of what Vanda has achieved in constructing such a gripping and thrilling novel.

Then there’s Sam to talk about, the central pillar of the book. I adore Sam. She is flawed, but doesn’t pretend otherwise. She doesn’t always make the best decisions. She can be hotheaded at times, and will go to great lengths when it comes to those she loves. She gets frustrated when those in power won’t see something her way when she knows she’s right. Sam doesn’t always get along with her family, who wanted her to go into something more feminine than police work. That Sam resisted that to pursue what she wanted to do should tell you something about this character. She is in short, a very relatable human being. We all know a Sam, or are a Sam. Or have parts of Sam that we recognise in ourselves.

Overkill is a finely crafted thriller, with twists and turns to keep you guessing. But more than that, it will make you think and reflect on community. A book that takes the standard thriller archetype and elevates it. Thought provoking and elegantly written, this is a debut from Vanda Symon that more than lives up to the hype. I’m looking forward to spending more time with Sam Shephard in the not too distant future.

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