Book review: Overkill by Vanda Symon

Overkill by Vanda Symon, Penguin NZ 2007.

After finishing this novel, I can write that it is a good, solid mystery about Sam Shepherd, the only police officer in the tiny New Zealand town of Mantaura. A young housewife, Gaby, apparently commits suicide, leaving a devastated husband and infant daughter. Sam begins the process of documenting the death but is very soon convinced that it was no accident (as usual in a crime novel), so calls her superiors and a team is sent in to take over what turns into a murder investigation. Sam is a very committed officer but extremely naive: it does not occur to her to mention to her colleagues that she had lived with the dead woman’s husband for more than a year before he married Gaby. As soon as this inconvenient fact comes out, Sam is not only taken off the investigation but treated as a suspect. Furious and humiliated, she decides to continue unofficially, and to find out the real criminal for herself.

Although this plot is a standard one for the genre, Sam’s lively, tough and humorous approach to life and her job lift the book to well above average. Aided by her flatmate Maggie, Sam finds plenty of information that needs following up, but it is not until she sets aside her jealousy towards Gaby and accepts that the poor woman is a victim, that she begins to make real inroads into the case. The route to the solution, as Sam uncovers more and more clues (via devices such as the police search of the victim’s house missing out all her files!), is compelling and exciting, thought the denouement does stretch it a bit (both in itself and in the rationale for the murder).

The novel is strongest in describing Sam’s personality, life and attitudes. Slightly disappointingly for me, it did not convey a convincing sense of place: I felt the book could have been set in any small farming community in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, Sam is a very Antipodean woman (if you’ve read The Build-Up by Philip Gwynne, set in northern Australia, you will recognise the type), which makes up for a lot.

What almost ruined the book for me, and made it very hard for me to read it at all, is the first chapter describing Gaby’s death. I found it literally unbearable to read and in retrospect the cruel, sadistic description not at all necessary for the subsequent plot. I did carry on with the book, having faith that it would not continue in this vein, and indeed it did not, leaving me totally bemused as to why such a harrowing and upsetting introduction was necessary for what is quite a light mystery novel.

I thank Bernadette of Reactions to Reading for so kindly sending me this book, which unfortunately is not published in the UK. Her review of the novel is here. Other reviews of the book can be found at: Mysteries in Paradise, Crime Watch, and The Game’s Afoot.

Vanda Symon’s website, including information about the four (so far) novels about Sam Shepherd.