Review: The Ringmaster

Vanda Symon – The Ringmaster

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I received a proof copy from the publisher for review purposes.

Firstly, a tip of the hat to Craig Sisterson, a New Zealander living in London, a huge champion of crime fiction from his homeland who has brought many writers to my attention. And massive thanks to Orenda Books for bringing Vanda Symon’s work to UK audiences (and before *all this* for bringing Vanda herself to the UK with her suitcaseful of sweets to share with audiences!).

Overkill, published in the UK in 2018, introduced us to Sam Shepherd, a solo cop in a small town on South Island with ambition, enthusiasm and empathy for the victims of crime that sets her apart from the cops parachuted in when the central case of that novel turns out to be bigger than Sam can handle.

The Ringmaster sees Sam having transferred to the relative metropolis of Dunedin and a bigger police department to begin detective training – but while we have a fairly standard murder at the opening of the book, the circus backdrop alluded to in the title allows Symon to play with stereotypes, expectations and emotions (if you don’t have a lump in your throat around half-way through when Sam and Cassie are eye to eye, you’ve a heart of stone).

Sam’s boss, DI Johns, isn’t a fan of his newest recruit and is determined to keep her on the sidelines, assigning her to liaise with the circus’s irascible owner, Terry Bennett, as his staff are questioned in connection with a murder case. But in fact it turns out this is exactly where Sam needs to be to make a breakthrough in the case. She is convinced that a string of murders in a string of small towns are linked, and that there is an escalation even while the MOs are different. Examining the most recent in the sequence leads her to a basic psychological profile of the killer – and a sickening realisation…

Sam wears her heart on her sleeve, her empathy propelling her to do the right thing (even if her superiors think it’s the wrong thing) and to seek justice. While she is a lover of red wine, she sidesteps the loner alcoholic detective trope by having friends around her, but she’s far from tediously well-adjusted – she is impetuous and reacts vehemently rather than thinking things through, so there’s plenty of scope for tension and drama in her personal life.

Sam – young and female, ambitious and determined, relatable in work and personal life contexts – is a breath of fresh air, and while Symon is still new to UK readers I suspect they will soon spread the word about her until she’s as well known as she is in her homeland. Meanwhile, roll on the next novel.

Follow the author on Twitter here: @vandasymon
For more about authors from The Antipodes, check out the #SouthernCrossCrime and #YeahNoir hashtags on Twitter. Follow Craig Sisterson, who founded New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Awards celebrating excellence in the country’s crime fiction, here: @craigsisterson

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