Detective Rubens McCauley (great name!) is at the end of his night shift, having recently returned to work after being injured and suspended (a story told in the author’s debut novel Head Shot, which I haven’t read), when a cafe owner calls to report a dead body in his yard. Feeling exhausted and not wanting to face several hours of admin work, McCauley is persuaded by his junior partner to classify the death, that of a teenage boy, as a non-suspicious overdose. The next morning, however, he has severe internal doubts about his casual behaviour, and after following up with the coroner and checking the boy’s effects, realises that the death was most likely not accidental. McCauley’s unpleasant superior, Ben Eckles (known as “Freckles”) does not want to reclassify the death because it would make the department, and more specifically him (as he has signed off McCauley’s initial report), look incompetent. McCauley disagrees and the two have an argument, resulting in McCauley being sent on “carer’s leave” to help look after his sick mother.
Naturally, McCauley instead decides to investigate the boy's death on his own. He’s frustrated at the politics and political correctness that are impeding the case and loses no time in persuading, pressuring or threatening a series of people (mainly medical professionals) to confirm the death as murder. Although he gets his wish, the case is handed to the homicide department. This does not deter McCauley from continuing his own line of unorthodox, almost vengeful, investigation.
Blood Sunset, set in the St Kilda district of Melbourne, is a deeply atmospheric, readable thriller, and one I enjoyed a lot. It isn’t without flaws, however, the most obvious one being McCauley’s stupidity in pursuing his investigation independently of the homicide division instead of trying to coordinate with them, in the process putting people at risk (particularly his ex-wife Ella, but also at least one young witness), and leading to yet more inevitable confrontations with his superiors and colleagues – not to mention the risk of queering the pitch of the official case. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the community of St Kilda is extremely well done, and although the pace of the first half of the novel is over-leisurely (providing recaps of the previous novel and McCauley's resultant insecurities, which slow the pace), the studies of the region’s lowlife and nightlife, and the plight of the teenagers involved in the story, are vivid and gripping, if harrowing at times.
As well as conveying an authentic sense of place, the author adds human interest via McCauley’s extended family, to whom he feels committed but also feels that he lets down owing to his dedication to his job. These aspects of the book are handled very well, particularly the scenes with McCauley’s mother and niece Chloe, who is possibly beginning to take illegal drugs. I found the character of Ella, a dedicated nurse, less plausible.
The climax to the novel is exciting, but marred for me by my sense of irritation that McCauley has only himself to blame for the things that go wrong through rushing to follow up his own hasty conclusions without collaborating or leaving information for colleagues in case of cock-ups (which of course occur, as any reader of the genre could have told McCauley). I also guessed early on the identity of the villain, but although this final unmasking was not a surprise, I was impressed with the clues and tracking that led the detectives to a premature solution, the suspense of the plot, and how the author gradually reveals the motivation both of the crime and, movingly, what was really going in on the life and mind of the boy who was killed.
I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading, whose review of this novel encouraged me to read it. I am very glad I did, as I think the series has great potential – so long as the author irons out a tendency for over-exposition. He has set up the ending of Blood Sunset to allow the series to take a slightly different direction, which I think will be to its benefit.
YouTube video about Blood Sunset (Australian edition).