27 September 2023

Black River

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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Matthew Spencer, Allen and Unwin, $32.99

While Australian crime fiction has been increasingly rural of late, a couple of debuts this year have brought the crime back to the city. Nina Campbell’s Daughter’s Of Eve situated its action around Sydney’s central business district. Matthew Spencer’s debut Black River travels only a little further out of the centre of town, up the Parramatta River to an exclusive boys’ school in Parramatta. In doing so, Spencer delivers a tense, stripped back procedural.

Black River opens with the murder of a teenager on the grounds of the exclusive Prince Albert school. The circumstances surrounding her discovery link it to two other recent nearby murders by an assailant that the press is calling the Blue Moon Killer, or BMK. Detectives O’Neill and Riley from the Satyr taskforce, established to find BMK, are brought in but there are enough discrepancies to make them wonder if there is indeed a connection between this new murder and their investigation. Heavy drinking, graveyard shift journalist Adam Bowman is also drawn in to the investigation. As a former student (and resident) at the school he manages to get access that others can’t and is soon cooperating with the police in return for stories.

The main characters – Rose Riley and Adam Bowman in particular – at first feel like they come from central casting, which is not unusual for procedurals of this type. But Spencer quickly manages to shade them and make them more interesting and engaging with backstory and personality. Bowman, in particular, has enough grey that when Riley starts to suspect him, the reader might also.

Spencer an ex-journalist himself for the only remaining national broadsheet, gives a fairly dour view of the current state of Australian print media. He also effectively captures the antagonistic but sometimes mutually beneficial relationship between the police and the media. And Spencer makes the investigation feel plausible – a mixture of hard graft, inspiration, making connections and luck – with exposition from the team’s forensic psychologist not feeling like a lecture. Setting the action in Sydney, and in particular an exclusive private school, also allows him to draw in a broader political angle.

Spencer makes sure he takes his time to explore and describe this area of Sydney. Characters go to local pubs, drive down familiar roads or, at one point, motor down the inner harbour past headlands and islands. The school itself, on its own extensive grounds with houses for many of the staff is based on a real place (where Spencer grew up) and may be an eye opener even for Sydney residents.

Plenty of former Australian journalists have found themselves getting into crime writing but not always so successfully. In his debut, Matthew Spencer hits a sweet spot of character, place, and plot – delivering a page turning thriller that along the way also has a few things to say about present day Australia and its institutions.

Over 750 more reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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