A change of scene for Sam Shephard. A dead student, a massive investigation, a battle to be heard over the noise. From zero to tense in the first page, doesn’t let go until the last.
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In the second Sam Shephard thriller we find our protagonist adjusting to life in the big city. Contrasting with the first novel, which was set in small town New Zealand, Vanda has moved her setting to the bigger backdrop of the city of Dunedin. It’s an interesting choice to make as there is always a risk of losing that intimate feel that worked so well for Overkill, in my review for that book I talked about the sense of place that ran through it and how important that was for the story being told. It’s testament to the quality of the writing on display here that such a change in location works so well. I have read one thriller recently (which shall remain nameless) where the location move didn’t serve the story terribly well, in fact it read as though the author had a novel ready and the publisher wouldn’t release it unless it could be sold as the second in a series and so character’s were replaced – to note that was a mainstream publisher, not an indie one. It was a great book, it just didn’t feel coherent with the first. That’s emphatically not the case here, a move to the city and a change of scene feels like a smart move for Sam following the events that closed out Overkill.
In Overkill, Sam was in sole charge of a small town, knew everyone and what was happening and had responsibility to investigate when a woman turned up dead. In The Ringmaster we find Sam adjusting to being lower in the pecking order as a trainee detective. Our story opens on a local student being found in the river, having been viciously beaten to death, a crime we see in some detail in the opening chapter. Vanda doesn’t waste any time in ramping up to full speed. And then staying there. Sam wants to be a part of the huge investigation that follows, but is struggling to be heard over the masses and over the evident dislike of the senior officer in charge, who constantly seeks to put her down.
Community is once again a central theme to the story, how communities react to attacks on them, how they look after one another, can be both wary and welcoming of newcomers simultaneously. How all of this then impacts on an investigation, and on the nature of the crimes committed. Fear or mistrust of certain communities is also examined here, scapegoating is a theme I’m sure we’re all familiar with in the current political climate, and some of the story hits a little close to home. What’s kind of sad though is that element of the story isn’t a deliberate choice to reflect the world in 2019, the book was originally published in New Zealand in 2008. In short, those issues are as prevalent now as they were ten years ago. I think they will remain resonant in another ten too.
An exceptionally paced novel, a gripping, engaging mystery underpinned by a focus on character and the people that surround Sam, The Ringmaster is a confident and assured second entry in the series. A quick google tells me there are two more of these books, I do hope Orenda have acquired the rights to the full series, I for one would love to spend more time getting to know Sam.