When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems.
Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon discovers the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast said her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands. To find the murderer…and clear her name.
I’ve been reading a lot of crime and thriller writing recently, especially from the extremely well-curated list at Orenda Books – a publisher that I have an ever-increasing amount of regard for given their high production values, stunning covers and their talent for spotting overlooked novels and new voices. One of the things that I’ve most enjoyed in exploring the Orenda list however, is getting the opportunity to read crime fiction set outside of the UK and USA, and from authors that are well known in their native countries but being published for the first time over here.
This is the case with Overkill; the first in Dunedin based writer Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard series, which introduces us to feisty rural police constable Sam and the small rural community of Mataura in which she works. The book opens with a real bang as a young woman is accosted by a professional hitman in her own home and forced to fake her own suicide. It’s an intense and chilling prologue that really hits the reader in the gut and, for a few pages, I was worried the book might be a little on the dark side for my tastes. Fortunately though, once Sam takes over in chapter one, the brutality takes a back seat and the focus is very much on the investigation of the crime and why someone would commit such a dark and violent act in this small town.
Sam is a great female lead – she’s feisty without being cliche and has a sarcastic sense of humour that helps lighten the otherwise rather taut, atmospheric mood. She’s also human – dedicated to her job and protecting her community but capable of mistakes and aware of her own limitations. She reminded me in a lot of ways of Sarah Ward’s Connie Childs – definitely a good thing as I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s police procedurals. I also found Sam’s complicated feelings about the victim Gabriella, the wife of Sam’s ex-lover Lockie Knowes, to be an intriguing addition to her character and was really glad that, for once, this complicated romantic history wasn’t used in a cliched manner but instead to add drama and tension to the plot.
As for the plot itself, it’s full of small town dramas that gradually knit together to reveal larger cover-up that has dark implications for Sam, Mataura and possibly even for New Zealand itself. Moving at break-neck speed, Symon does an excellent job of pulling together the threads of a relatively complex plot whilst keeping the pace high and the pages turning in a manner similar to that of Jane Harper’s excellent Australian police procedural The Dry. Fans of Harper will definitely get a similar feel and flavour in Overkill, with its focus on a small community unbalanced by a tragic and violent event.
If I had one tiny criticism it would be the ending, which felt a little rushed in parts and had a couple of moments where I felt the otherwise capable Sam acted out of character for the sake of drama. Overall however that definitely didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book – as a police procedural, much of the pace and atmosphere comes from the solving of the crime, rather than in the explosive set-piece ending, and Symon does that brilliantly. I also liked the possibilities left open to Sam at the end of the book, and can definitely see this novel as being just the start for her as a character.
A controlled and pacy police procedural, Overkill is an accomplished debut with a fantastic heroine and a gripping, page-turning quality. A brilliant addition to Orenda’s already ‘jam-packed with awesome’ crime list, I’m hoping this won’t be the last we’ll see of Sam Shephard or Vanda Symon!
Overkill by Vanda Symon and published by Orenda Books, is available now as an ebook and is out in paperback from 06 September 2017 from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto the tour. The tour continues until 19 September 2018 so please check out the rest of the tour stops along the way!