Review: Containment

Vanda Symon – Containment

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

The third of Vanda Symon’s Sam Shepherd novels to be published in the UK, Containment opens as shipping containers lost from a cargo ship are washing up on the beach at Aramoana, a village near Dunedin, and swiftly being pillaged by unscrupulous locals. Then an elderly woman turns up something more gruesome, and Sam – on a brief winter beach break from the city – steps in to give the local officers a hand in stemming the chaos. And promptly takes a punch from an angry pilferer that knocks her unconscious… This is so very Sam, and so very Symon – the former inevitably runs into trouble while trying to help people; the latter loves nothing better than mixing the nasty with the ridiculous to keep the reader on their toes and keep the pages turning.

Another trick Symon loves to use is wrong-footing the reader, so by 40 pages in, we’re wondering what’s coming along to replace the conclusions we jumped to in the first chapters. There’s not long to wait, as Sam is sent off to oversee the recovery of a body by a diver found by a fisherman. The resulting post-mortem examination reveals the cause of death was definitely not accidental. The body is identified and Sam gets the unenviable task of interviewing the dead man’s parents and friends. He hasn’t been seen since a party the weekend of the shipping container chaos, and there seems to be a level of planning and violence involved in his death that isn’t easily explained.

While the case is moving forwards, albeit slowly, Sam’s personal life has gone from steady normality to panic mode. This is handled nicely by Symon, who puts commitment-phobe Sam through the wringer with a wry twinkle of the author’s eye to keep things from descending too far into angst – yet somehow Symon’s lightness of touch brings a lump to the throat more quickly than if she had ladled on the anguish.

As a seasoned reader of police procedurals would expect, there are more twists, and we revisit both the young men under investigation and the pillaging of the containers. And as a seasoned reader of Symon’s work would expect, Sam is pushing the boundaries, determined to do what she feels is right despite the rules. While the interlinking cases are mostly resolved by the end, Sam’s personal and professional relationships have a satisfying amount of loose ends – including a hint of what might be a focal point of the next book in the series (at least, I hope it will be a focal point!).

Symon’s Sam Shepherd series is a refreshing take on the police procedural genre, and the New Zealand setting and other touches – the slang, the Toffee Pops biscuits – are alien enough to grab the attention without being distracting. Sam is a character you warm to, and it’s always fun to watch her exploits. I’m pleased that Symon’s books are being brought to a wider audience, and I’m unsurprised that she has been shortlisted for NZ’s Ngaio Marsh Award and a CWA Dagger in the UK in recent years. A name to watch, and a series to get on board with.

Follow the author on Twitter at: @vandasymon

For more news and conversation about crime fiction from Australia and New Zealand, follow the #SouthernCrossCrime and #YeahNoir hashtags on Twitter, and look out for London-based Kiwi Craig Sisterson (@craigsisterson), who is a co-founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and a huge cheerleader for the sector.

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