Traffic by Robin Gregory

‘After that case, I’d sworn I’d never investigate another homicide. If only I’d remembered.’

Meet Private Investigator Sandi Kent. Sandi works in Melbourne, where she supplements her PI income by teaching swimming to children twice a week. She’s on her way home from one of those swimming sessions in December when her ‘phone rings. Her friend lawyer, Maria Luisetto, wants her to find out more information about a client she is defending, Ricardo Lopez, who has been charged with the murder of a sex worker. There are inconsistent witness statements, a few complicating issues and Sandi is initially reluctant.

‘If my lack of money hadn’t been such an issue right now, I would have waved adiós amiga.’

Sandi then takes on another case, after meeting up with her volatile ex-girlfriend Cassy Joynson. It has been seven years, and Sandi wonders why Cassy has contacted her. She soon finds that Cassy wants Sandi’s help to rescue a young woman who is being held as a prisoner in a Melbourne brothel. Can Sandi help?

Meeting Cassy brings the past back to Sandi. Memories of failed relationships and hopes for the future. And then a reminder that it is December, and a family Christmas needs to be negotiated with her sister Iris and their mother.

Sandi is smart, strong, brave, instinctive, and impulsive. She will need all her skills if she is to negotiate the dangerous reefs of Melbourne’s underworld to get the information she needs. Sandi quickly finds that there is more to Ricardo’s case than she thought, and several people are in danger. And rescuing the young sex worker will not be easy. Her friend Stewart Wright helps: teamwork at its best!

This is a fast-moving story, with a plenty of tension and more than a threat of violence. While everyday Melbourne provides the setting, an underworld of human trafficking, drugs and murder is where much of the action takes place. The story held my attention from beginning to end. Sandi is an engaging character, her friendship with Stewart is terrific, and I hope to read more Sandi Kent mysteries.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

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Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie by Fin J Ross

‘She was alone.’

Meet Miss Fidelia Knight.  She set out from England with her parents on the SS Great Britain and arrived in Melbourne in 1874.  Alone, except for half of Samuel Johnson.  Fidelia takes refuge at night in the fabulous Coles Book Arcade in Bourke Street.  Here, surrounded by books, she takes refuge in words.  But Fidelia’s rest in Coles Book Arcade is interrupted by a man puzzling over words (in alphabetical order).

Over twenty-six wonderful chapters, an A to Z of life through words, we travel with Fidelia as she meets several wonderful (mostly) characters and changes their lives.  First, she starts with Jasper Godwin.  He is the manager of the new Billings Better Bookstore and he is really struggling to prepare for the opening: how can he catch the attention of potential customers?

Fidelia calls him Quandary Man.

‘Could she be Quandary Man’s muse?  Would he thank her for her effort?  Or begrudge her presumptuousness?

A

Amelia Audacious Admonished an Amateur Abecedarian and Absconded with an Antediluvian Aardvark,

After Adjourning for an Arousing Absinthe at Billings Better Bookstore and Cafeteria.

Did she Absolutely?  She did indeed!’

And this is just the beginning.  Fidelia loves words.  Her enthusiasm helps Jasper Godwin, and Mr Billings who is also in a position to help others.  Where others see problems, Fidelia sees possibilities.  But there is one mystery she would like to solve: what happened to her parents?

What a word feast this novel is!  The superb cover and illustrations are by Judith Rossell and they are a perfect complement to the story.  I discovered new words, met some old favourites, and loved the alliteration. Fidelia’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and her enthusiasm enables her to teach others.  There are some unexpected twists in the story, and a very satisfying ending. 

Every one of the twenty-six chapters opens alliteratively.  My favourite today is x.

X

Xavier Xerxes, a Xenodochial Xenagogue, used Xyston and Xiphos

To eXtricate himself from a Xanthippe aboard his Xebec,

In an eXotic display at

Billings Better Bookstore and Brasserie

Did he Xenially?  He did indeed!’

A rewarding read. A read to return to.  Really.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

‘Great art can make even the most important person seem insignificant – and I’m not important by any means.’

Art dealer Alex Clayton is both thrilled and nervous to be previewing the Melbourne International Museum of Art (MIMA)’s latest exhibition: Masterpieces of Victorian Britain.  Alex is thrilled because of the art, nervous because she has some unpleasant memories from the time she spent working there.  She and her friend, conservator John Porter, meet and make their way into MIMA.  They are present when, as a large painting is being unpacked, one of the packers collapses and damages the reportedly cursed painting.  The packer is taken to hospital.

Meredith Buchanan, a senior conservator, is to repair the work.  But when she dies, less than twenty-four hours later in an apparent suicide, John Porter is asked to supervise the repairs.  Was Meredith also a victim of the reputed curse?

The conservation studio is now a crime scene, but there is something strange about the scene.  There is a splash of paint: a vivid crimson which is not a colour on the painting to be restored.  And then Alex discovers a torn-up photograph.  The police dismiss the photograph as irrelevant, but something is not right, and Alex and John are determined to investigate.  Their amateur investigations lead them into some tight spots while their knowledge of art leads them to some worrying conclusions.  Alex is offered a job at MIMA, which complicates matters. 

This novel is the second in Ms Kovacic’s Alex Clayton Art Mystery series.  We were introduced to the characters of Alex and John in ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, and they are further developed here.  They are good friends, have been for years, even though John’s jealous wife does her best to keep them apart.

Ms Kovacic works some interesting technical detail (about the behind the scenes work of art museums and the restoration of damaged paintings) into the story.  But the real focus is on the death of Meredith.  If she did not commit suicide, who killed her and why?  And what is the significance of the crimson paint?   

The various pieces come together in a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this novel.  The story and the setting held my attention, as did the working relationship and history between Alex and John.  I especially liked Alex’s Irish wolfhound Hogarth. 

I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series shortly.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

#AussieAuthor 2020

#SistersinCrime Aust

Death on the Derwent: Sue Neill-Fraser’s story by Robin Bowles

‘The facts and rumours surrounding the event have polarised the close-knit Hobart community.’

On the night of 26 January 2009, Bob Chappell went missing from his yacht Four Winds and was never seen again.  The yacht had been moored near the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania’s marina in the Derwent River.  Bob Chappell had intended to spend the night on the yacht and was found to be missing the next morning. 

Bob Chappell’s body has never been found.

‘The police were investigating a murder with no body, no weapon, no witnesses and no confession.’

In 2010, Sue Neill-Fraser, his life partner of 18 years was found guilty of his murder and sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.  There have been several appeals, and in March 2020 Ms Neill-Fraser gained leave for a second appeal against her conviction.  This appeal has not yet been scheduled (as of 25 July 2020) because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Ms Bowles sets out the story in three parts: the disappearance of Bob Chappell; a summary of the way the case was dealt with by the legal system; and the ongoing challenging of the legal system in this case.

Before reading this book, I knew little about the Sue Neill-Fraser case.  While I appreciate the amount of detail and background information that Ms Bowles has included, it took me a while to adjust to her writing style.  For example, initially Ms Bowles’s referring to her connections to Tasmania, of knowing ‘who’s who in the zoo’ seemed irrelevant but I soon realised that it was part of her scene-setting, of describing the environment in which events took place.  I do not necessarily share all of her conclusions (I am an expatriate Tasmanian with no establishment ties), but I think her observations are relevant.

We may never know what happened to Bob Chappell, but I am gobsmacked that Ms Neill-Fraser was convicted of murder on the case made by the prosecution.  While I do not necessarily agree that:

‘When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.’

I do have concerns about the way the case was presented and can only hope that the most recent appeal is successful.  Usually, when reading books about true crimes, there is an outcome.  In this case there is not.  Yet.  Ms Neill-Fraser is still in gaol, is still awaiting a determination of her appeal. Ms Bowles started her investigations in 2015, and when this book was published wrote:

‘So that’s it, really.  My job is done.  I never expected this story to cover this many years and still not have an ending.’

I finished this book dissatisfied, not with the book, but with the process surrounding Ms Neill-Fraser’s conviction. I will be extremely interested in following the appeal which hopefully will be heard later this year.  The appeal hearing has been delayed by COVID-19 restrictions: Ms Neill-Fraser’s legal team are based in Melbourne.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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#SistersinCrime Aust