Review: Faceless

Vanda Symon – Faceless (Blog Tour)

Faceless author Vanda Symon

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99, also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. Please note, a percentage of profits from the sales of Faceless go to homelessness charity Shelter.

First, the official blurb:  Worn down by a job he hates, and a stressful family life, middle-aged, middleclass Bradley picks up a teenage escort and commits an unspeakable crime. Now he’s tied up in his warehouse, and he doesn’t know what to do. Max is homeless, eating from rubbish bins, sleeping rough and barely existing – known for cadging a cigarette from anyone passing, and occasionally even the footpath. Nobody really sees Max, but he has one friend, and she’s gone missing. In order to find her, Max is going to have to call on some people from his past, and reopen wounds that have remained unhealed for a very long time – and the clock is ticking…

New Zealand author Vanda Symon has found acclaim and fans around the world with her Sam Shephard series following the rookie cop as she finds her feet as a detective and finds her place in the world. She’s sure to find more acclaim and more fans with this stunning standalone, with its central character of Max, who is homeless but has to reconnect with the world when his only friend, Billy, goes missing. The best contemporary crime fiction tells us about the society we live in, and this does that in spades.

We are introduced to Billy in a beautiful scene where we learn both that she is an accomplished street artist with a vivid imagination and that she has to do sometimes do horrible things to earn the money to create beauty.

Then it’s over to financial office drone Bradley, overworked and under-appreciated, who is having yet another bad day, getting a tongue-lashing from the boss and another mountain of work that means he has to cancel plans made with his wife and young daughters. After his wife’s reaction on the phone, who can blame him for taking a detour on the way home, in an effort to make him feel more man than mouse? But that snap decision is one he will regret making. He’ll also regret the decisions he makes next, and next, and next…

Meanwhile, we meet Max, diving into a dumpster in search of food and wondering what Billy is up to. The search for food, a discarded cigarette, the effort to stay warm and dry, and to sleep undisturbed – the basics of life which take on a new focus when living on the street – are detailed throughout the book with a mix of empathy and matter-of-factness. There’s also an understanding that whether you have a permanent roof over your head or only a piece of cardboard as your bed, people are always just people: good and bad, flawed and fabulous. Max and Billy both left the lives they used to have, for very different reasons which are unfolded as we read on, and it’s a good reminder that circumstances can change overnight for pretty much anyone.

Some of the dangers facing those on the fringes of society are detailed here – and there’s a stark reminder that the police aren’t too interested in them either. What happened to people who don’t matter? “Who cares!” is the silent answer a lot of the time, and goes a long way to explain Bradley’s actions. He has always held back his anger, but with Billy it pours out, leaving him feeling guilty but exhilarated – and as the novel goes on, the latter starts to take over from the former; he finds a new swagger now he’s no longer at the bottom of every pecking order in his life.

Finally, Max has more information to take to the cops, and eventually finds one he has had contact with previously – DS Meredith Peters – who drops an almighty bombshell that made my jaw drop. How far can you fall, and how hard, from what you had before? A couple of bad events, a couple of bad decisions, and things can fall apart. The whole novel is a nudge to the reader that what we have is fragile and precious, to be appreciated and nurtured and never taken for granted. And there’s also a hard reminder that actions have lasting consequences.

The drip-feed of information, short chapters with changing points of view, and bursts of action that come without warning all keep the reader’s nerves taut – I hardly dared take a breath in some places, never mind take a break from reading. Want tension? Here’s a masterclass.

We’re a long way from Sam Shephard and Toffee Pops here. The move from Sam’s Dunedin to Auckland gives Symon a city where it would be easier to get lost and be ignored, and one where there is a faster pace and harder edges, literally and metaphorically. And while there are quieter moments in Faceless, there aren’t the lighter moments of humour that punctuate Sam’s world. This is a writer striking off in a very different direction, using different techniques, and ending up with something altogether darker but with a new richness too. I’ve loved Symon’s books so far, and think Sam is a real gem of a character, but Faceless makes me respect her talent and craft anew; it’s a whole new level of excellence.

As we push into the final part of the book, the pace quickens until it’s unstoppable, building into an avalanche that descends with inevitable, righteous fury that horrifies and satisfies. And afterwards there is a quiet moment of hope, and a tentative lift of the eyes to a future horizon, rather than being focussed on simply surviving today. There’s a lot to fix, and a lot to move on from that may never be fixed, but we all need hope.

Faceless was published several years ago in New Zealand – lucky them. But now it’s lucky us as we get to read this simply superb piece of work. I’ve struggled to find the words to review this book, so let’s make it simple: Buy it, read it.

Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago
Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series, which includes Overkill, The
Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, hit number one on the New Zealand bestseller list. She has been
shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award and for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @vandasymon
Find her website at:

You can also read my reviews of three of Vanda’s Sam Shephard books elsewhere on the blog: The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, all of which are also published by Orenda Books and available direct from their website

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the reviews on the blog tour!

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