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.

25 thoughts on “Book review: Overkill by Vanda Symon

  1. Maxine – Thanks as ever for this thoughtful, fine review. One of the points you make – about the distinctiveness of character and place – is particularly interesting to me. I think it’s very important that a novel give the reader a sense of location and of the types of people who live there. That’s one way in which different crime fiction novels tackle similar topics in distinctive ways. I’m glad that Sam Shepherd’s character struck you as interesting and not stereotypical.

    I also agree with you about who little truly graphic violence serves most plots. I wouldn’t call myself a prude, but I often don’t see the need for it either.

  2. Thank you, Margot. I am sorry that I didn’t make this clear in my review, but the first chapter does not contain graphic violence or even very much violence at all. But its description of the murder and how it was done is truly horrible.

    • Got it, Maxine – Thanks for the clarification. Your point makes just as much sense as it did in your review; novels don’t necessarily need that kind of horror even if it’s not graphic…

  3. Thanks for this review Maxine. I was interested in that you did not feel the book conveyed a convincing sense of place. The only crime fiction set in NZ I have read by Paul Cleave also had that fault.
    Is it a question of lack of confidence in the New Zealand setting, because other antipodean authors such as Gary Disher, and Peter Temple don’t have this problem?

  4. It’s funny isn’t it, Norman, I was thinking about that Paul Cleave, too, as I had thought this one would have more local colour. Years ago when I read Ngaio Marsh, I did not recall a sense of “New Zealand” but I’d have to read one again now to check. (I used to own all her books but gave them away years ago).
    Yet, as you say, Garry Disher, Peter Temple, Adrian Hyland, Philip Gwynne — all are so wonderfully “place-ist” about their Australian locations. Very strange.

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  6. Not that I’ve read very many books set in NZ but I can’t think of one that provides much of a sense of place and I suspect that is deliberate. I imagine that kiwi authors get told to either set their stuff overseas (as the bulk of Ngaio Marsh’s books were) or to make the locations generic in order to sell them. Australian authors are told this too – I have heard it often at writer’s festivals and in other situations (not just crime writers). It is partly to do with finding an overseas market (I think you, me and our Friend Feed readers are the minority who actively seek interesting settings for our reading) but also, sadly, due to the ‘cultural cringe’ factor of local audiences. Although it is getting better even today it is not unusual for people here to say they don’t see Australian movies or watch Australian TV or read Australian books. Sad but true. Most of our entertainment is provided by US/UK so that is what a lot of people look for. You’re right that we have a few authors who deliberately go out of their way to provide a visibly Australian setting but they are actually the minority of crime writers – and, sadly, only one of those you mention would make anything approaching a living out of their crime writing. A lot more of our successful mid-list authors (Robotham, Giarratano, Fox, Howell, Martin….) set their books overseas or in a quite generic Australia that could easily be anywhere in the world.

  7. I’m sure what you write is true, Bernadette, sadly (and explains why I didn’t remember Ngaio Marsh’s books being very NZ-ish! It is a long time since I read them). What a pity as the Australian films I’ve enjoyed most are the ones that are set there (Mad Max ;-), Rabbit Proof Fence, Peter Weir’s etc) as well as books. I love the sense of place which is why I mainly read international fiction. Funny, though, as many US and UK books do have quite a strong sense of place and are commercially successful.

  8. Very interesting analysis of the book and the topic of “sense of place” in NZ books, or lack thereof. That is one reason that I read global fiction; I learn about the cultures, history, people, and more about different countries. It’s a shame this book didn’t convey that.
    That is also true in Containment by the same author, however, that book does not have a brutal description of the murders. The adventures, experiences, thinking and speaking of the main character are what’s key.
    I enjoyed that book; it helped me get over a very brutal ending of a tough book. And I did laugh throughout Symon’s book, which was needed, and I enjoyed Sam’s exploits and feistiness.
    Adrian Hyland’s books are exceptionally good on the “sense of place” issue, and they also sent me to Google and read more about this, as I was reading, which I appreciated.
    I will read more books by her, but may steer clear of this one, or will simply skip the beginning.

  9. Personally, I thought the beginning was one the best opening chapters I’ve read from a debut novel in years; but then again, I’m a bit more okay with the harrowing stuff than some readers. The opening chapter really made you ‘feel’ (even if that feeling was disturbed/uncomfortable etc), which in the end is the purpose of good writing – to engage the reader emotionally, not just intellectually.

    It’s funny that many of you think the book doesn’t give a good sense of place – living in New Zealand, but having travelled the world, I actually think it does give quite a good sense of place. The fact is that rural New Zealand is probably quite similar to rural areas in other countries – it’s not massively different, but just has a few touches that make it slightly unique. As someone who grew up in a suburb that was very close (5mins drive) to rural countryside, I really felt that OVERKILL gave a good sense of the agricultural area and landscape of Matuaura. That doesn’t mean it’s massively different to other sheep/cattle/dairy farming areas around the world, of course.

    Intererstingly, Mad Max has been given as an example as a good sense of Australian place – but overall that really could be any desert area anywhere in the world in a post-apocalypic setting.

    • Craig I’m sure you’re right that there are things that a local would recognize as being ‘New Zealandy’ about the book but there is certainly nothing that screams it to outsiders which is the big difference. I always find things to recognize in Leah Giarratano’s Sydney because I lived there for a few years and there are things that make me think “oh yes that’s so true” but I can see that if you didn’t know Sydney at all you’d just gloss over those things or think them the same as any large city with a diverse population. On the other hand Peter Temple’s books couldnn’t be set anywhere but Australia – it’s a mixture of location description, launguage used, behaviour of the characters – even if you’ve never been to Australia you get a sense of the place – just like James Lee Burke gives you a sense of Louisianna even if you’ve never visited.

  10. She sounds like an author to watch for even if the sense of place isn’t as strong as in other novels–that’s one of the things I like most about reading international fiction, however, to get an idea of what life is like elsewhere. I tend to not get far in a book if there is too much graphic description, but as long as an author doesn’t prolong it… It seems as though her books are not easy to find of here, but I see lots of other authors listed by other commenters (and I found a Peter Temple novel at a recent library sale).

  11. I don’t mind harrowing but I draw the line at a scene in which a young mother allows herself to be killed because the criminal is threatening her baby…..which was totally unnecessary for what followed, in that it was not a theme remotely necessary for the plot. All we needed to know is that she’d been killed, we did not need the threatening baby/mother anguish part. (My take). Why was it there? To be sensationalist and to sell the book to sick people who find that kind of thing entertaining (my take again).

    Yes, a sense of place is conveyed beautifully by C J Box, Michael Connelly, and a recent read Dana Stabenow for their various parts of the USA. Could only be set in that one place. That was what was missing for me in the setting of this book, though I appreciate that one small farming community is much like another, probably. Maybe the second book, set in Dunedin, will be more place-ist.

  12. Thanks for your warning and insights on the start of the book and about sensationalist and gratuitous brutality. These plot devices are so unnecessary and appeal to the lowest common denominator in the readership.
    Wish we could all pressure writers and publishers to call a halt to this. Good and interesting plots, characters, locations, not to mention good writing, should suffice.

  13. I agree, Kathy, I am heartened when Michael Connelly or Harlan Coben hits the no 1 in charts but disheartened when it is Karin Slaughter (used to be good but has gone this route) or other…..

  14. Coincidentally, I just picked up M. Connelly’s newest legal Thriller, The Fifth Witness.

    I stay away from Karin Slaughter’s and Tess Gerritsen’s books — too brutal, violent and gory. And women are the victims of the gratuitous violence, stalking, torture, etc.

    A good story with a few twists and turns and compelling characters is often sufficient.

  15. Kathy — Nicci French, a British (part-Swedish) husband and wife team, are very good at getting the balance right between exciting, tense thriller plots and lack of any gratuitious content (plus strong female protags). I am not sure if they are published in the US but well worth a read if you can get hold of one. They are all standalones.

    • A number of Nicci French’s books are available in the US–though not all are in print–it seems like there are loads of inexpensive used copies however. I sort of prefer reading about a strong female protagonist, so I really do need to squeeze in a book or two by her soon. I knew Nicci French was actually two writers but didn’t realize that one was Swedish–interesting.

  16. Interesting comments there guys – and it’s great to get an outside perspective; as Bernadette and others have said, there might be ‘Kiwi’ things in OVERKILL that non-Kiwis don’t pick up on so much (eg Toffee Pop biscuits etc).

    I guess that’s the thing with places like Louisiana and LA etc – even if we’ve never been there, we know enough about them from media/TV/movies that we can still tell if an author creates a ‘good sense’ of that particular place. As Bernadette says, if we are unfamiliar with a place, we may not realise that a book evokes it well, because it seems like many other places we know (ie doesn’t seem as unique).

    I fully understand your point about the opening chapter too Maxine – rest assured, Vanda doesn’t use that kind of device in any of the following three books (although there is a home invasion at the start of book 4, BOUND). Personally I didn’t think the opening was gory or gratuitious (unlike the likes of Cornwell, Slaughter, Hayder etc), although it was very harrowing – but I understand what you’re saying.

  17. I have read two books by Nicci French. One about a mother looking for her daughter I liked. Another about a housemate being murdered didn’t appeal to me. But I would read books by this team again.
    I came home from the library with Mallo’s Dagger nominee, M. Connelly’s new legal thriller (love those), and S. Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, plus have several paperbacks here including Witness the Night, Affairs of State and Solana’s second book, and I’m in the midst of Ariana Franklin’s first one. On the last one, I get lost in the 12th century but that author is very skillful at that. It takes thinking to read that; it’s not a quick read.

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  21. I’m almost at the end of Overkill which is why I’m reading these reviews. The opening is harrowing but not gratuitous. It oviously says something about the perpetrator (s).
    The first NZ crime writer I discovered was Laurie Mantell, who was writing around thirty years ago. Her novels conveyed a strong sense of place to me. I also get a very good sense of NZ, including small town life from (non-crime) novels by Janet Frame and Maurice Gee, to name two. NZ actually reminds me of the Tasmania I grew up in. (Sorry, NZedders.) I don’t really fault Vanda Symon though, having that sense from these other books. When stressed,Sam goes for Toffee Pops, quite unknown here; Aussies grab the Tim Tams! But I noted she eats Vegemite.

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