I first fell in love with the work of Australian best-selling author Sulari Gentill with her historical crime fiction Roland Sinclair series, which combine my love of the two genres of historical and crime fiction in a brilliant and somewhat addictive way.
Since the last book about Roland and his friends, Ms Gentill has written several stand-alone novels, set in contemporary America. A theme that unites these disparate stories is the ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of the worlds of writing and publishing, with twisty tales of dark deeds threaded throughout.
The Mystery Writer is set in middle America, a town called Lawrence in Kansas. This is where Australian student Theodosia arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Gus’ doorstep. She has left behind a partly completed law degree and brings with her a burning desire to become a writer.
She meets a best-selling author Dan and a friendship starts to form, but to her horror, Theo discovers Dan dead on the floor of his apartment, his throat cut.
The murders begin to mount up and Theo is suddenly the prime suspect. What can she do to protect herself, her brother and his friend Mac? She has to make a difficult choice which leads to devastating consequences.
Gradually she understands that Dan’s life and death have a connection to a dark web network of conspiracy theorist fantasists and ‘preppers’. The online posts of key members of this group preface each chapter of the novel, and are by turns hilarious and chilling.
In the midst of all the dramatic events, Theo receives an offer of representation by the literary agency connected with Dan. A condition is that Theo turns over total control of her social media and online presence to the agency for management by them. She is assured that this is standard procedure. We are left to wonder if this is true…
The novel explores how fictional narratives can be used to vicariously wield political and business influence. While this is in a context of a piece of fiction, it is worth thinking about in the broader sense, given the events that we’ve seen in US, British and Australian politics, economies and societies over past years.
Theo, Gus and Mac are all sympathetic and relatable characters,; the tension is nicely calibrated throughout the novel. It’s a book that will please crime and mystery readers and which also provokes some thought about the online worlds we now inhabit.
The Mystery Writer is published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in March 2024.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ebook copy to review.
British author Sarah Vaughan made a splash with her 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal, in which she explored the often-fraught issue of consent in sexual encounters. Later adapted into a TV series, it was a story that somehow reflected and tapped into some of the preoccupations of the time, especially in the worlds of high-profile people and the law.
Reputation is a worthy successor. It is a cleverly constructed story of a divorced female UK MP, her teenage daughter, mistakes and spur-of-the-moment decisions sorely regretted. The novel opens with a body at the base of a staircase, so it’s not a plot spoiler to say that someone dies.
What makes it a page turner is that we need to know just how and why this character met their end. It’s clever because the reader is never quite sure where the fault lies: the precise sequence of events that led to this moment. The last third or so of the book is taken up with the trial, in which the defence team lays out all the reasons why the accused is innocent of murder, and the Crown makes the opposite argument.
The author has embedded timely and topical issues of online and physical bullying (at all ages), hate speech and trolling, and especially, the sexualised invective to which high profile women are subjected. These are all too familiar: readers in Australia will recall the hideous and gendered abuse our first female PM Julias Gillard was subjected to during her time in office – and that speech (often referred to as ‘the misogyny speech‘) which went viral.
Emma, the main character, faces the usual quandaries of being a working single parent with a teenager who is experiencing her own difficulties. In her role as an MP, Emma speaks out strongly against so-called ‘revenge porn’ – which wins her an army of trollers, death threats and stalking. This is all horribly recognisable – down to Emma holding her house keys splayed between her fingers when walking alone at night, ready to employ as a weapon should she need it. Hands up if you do the same. It was something taught at a self defence for women class I did many years ago – so yes, believable.
The court room drama forensically examines the various stories, interpretations and impressions by those involved – showing that what we read, hear, even see with our own eyes is not necessarily either the truth, or the whole truth.
The novel is a psychological thriller, yes; but it delves into issues that perhaps many would prefer to avoid thinking about. As Emma considers the dangers faced by public figures, especially women in male-dominated environments, she feels gratitude for those who worked alongside her without the public profile:
I think of their loyalty in working for me despite regularly having contempt hurled down the phone at them; of their steadfastness despite knowing that every time they open a parcel, they risk being exposed to something unpleasant or toxic. I think of the Simon Baxters we’ve known. Men who fizz with anger, their aggression only just reined in, the potential for them to erupt, for a situation that appears civil to escalate in a flash, always present.
I accepted that danger was part of the job, but when did I internalise this belief? When did I accept these precautions as normal? And why did I believe my staff should accept this, too?Reputation p405
I could not put this book down until I’d finished it. It’s engrossing, compelling and entirely believable.
Reputation is published by Simon & Schuster in 2022.
Alice and Iris are teenagers who inhabit different worlds, despite both being students at Castle Cove High School. Iris comes from a struggling single mother family and is seemingly invisible to Alice’s crowd, nicknamed the ‘Main Kids’ by Iris’ crowd (the ‘Zoners’, who include punks, nerds, hippies and dance team.) The Mains are the kids from wealthy backgrounds. ‘Glossy and full of health and money, they ooze easy life.’
When Alice’s erstwhile best friend Brooke disappears, the community is in uproar. Brooke had been dating Alice’s ex-boyfriend and things had become messy. So messy, in fact, that when Steve left Alice for Brooke last summer, Alice had disappeared for five days.
Brooke’s disappearance is being treated by the local police as ‘copycat’ – until her body is found at the base of cliffs on the edge of town. Steve, the boyfriend, is arrested for her murder.
Neither Alice nor Iris believe that Steve is guilty. They are thrown together as they begin to put pieces of the mystery together, guided by Alice’s collection of the complete works of Agatha Christie.
This novel will appeal to young adult readers of mystery and crime fiction. There are amusing commentaries on high school cliques and social stratifications that I’m sure will resonate with readers (of any age) who can recall their own high school experiences. More contemporary references to the impact of social media and local gossip will also be familiar, especially the way social media invites everyone to weigh in with their uninformed views and personal agendas.
While the story is mostly light-hearted, it has some darker themes: family violence is one; the tendency of adults to patronise youngsters and discount girls’ abilities another.
Something that hurts, to be honest. I mean, we live with it every day. In class, on the street, everywhere. Teachers not calling on you but calling on boys. Cluck-clucking at our clothes and makeup. The eyes of men when I just want to buy a stupid cup of coffee at Dotty’s Doughnuts. That cop at the police station, Thompson.The Agathas p123
In the end, under all the mystery and drama, the story is one about friendship, especially how, if people can look beyond their assumptions and prejudices, true friendship can develop.
And the pithy quotes from Mistress of Crime, Agatha Christie, are exactly on point.
A fun ‘whodunit?’ for young adult readers, with food for thought throughout.
The Agathas is published by Harper Collins in May 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.