Book review: Containment by Vanda Symon

by Vanda Symon
Penguin (New Zealand), 2009.
Sam Shephard #3

Sam (Samantha) Shephard has been promoted to Detective Constable and has transferred to Dunedin’s criminal investigation bureau. She loves her job and gets on well with her partner Malcolm Smith (“Smithy”), but suffers at the hands of the unpleasant DI Johns. For this latter reason, Sam is sent as the police presence when news comes in that a body in a wet suit has washed up in the harbour. Sam is delighted, though, when it turns out that the swimmer had not died naturally – as first officer on the scene, she will lead the subsequent investigation whatever her boss thinks.

The plot becomes more complicated as the identity of the body is eventually found, via some clever forensics work. It seems likely that the victim was involved in drug dealing, but information from his associates is sparse (if the associates can even be found, that is). DI Johns is soon able to annoy Sam again, as the case comes to intersect with an earlier incident in which Sam was assaulted by a looter when she tried to stop people from stealing the cargo of a ship that ran aground on Aramoana beach. Johns uses this fact as an excuse to reassign Sam to more tedious tasks – tasks that may well also become relevant to both investigations.

As well as her role in the crime plot, Sam finds herself in a romantic dilemma as her current boyfriend Paul tells her he’s transferring to Dunedin. Sam is very against the idea of committing herself in a relationship, despite the advice of her long-suffering flatmate Maggie, who tells her she should leap at the opportunity to settle down with Paul.

Containment is a classic police procedural novel with a contemporary twist provided by Sam’s perspective as a female outsider in an elite, male team. She’s a tough cookie, but at the same time insecure about why she was fast-tracked into the squad. The book provides a vivid portrait of Dunedin and environs, as well as conveying New Zealand attitudes and culture to those of us who live on the other side of the world. I very much enjoyed this novel and will certainly be reading more of this series.

I purchased my copy of this book.

Other reviews of Containment are at: Mysteries in Paradise, AustCrime, Reactions to Reading, and various posts with links to reviews at Crime Watch.

I have read and reviewed the first book in this series, Overkill, but have not read the second, The Ringmaster (for UK availability reasons). There is now a fourth novel in the series, Bound. The author’s most recent novel is a standalone, The Faceless. You can read synopses of all these books, and find more information, at the author’s website. There is also a post about the Sam Shephard series at Crime Watch.

26 thoughts on “Book review: Containment by Vanda Symon

  1. I read this book, the only one I have read featuring Sam Shephard. I agree with your review. I enjoyed the book, i.e., the main character.– her independence, feistiness, courage and sense of humor. I keep checking at the library here and Containment is the only book they have by Vanda Symon, so I’ll have to try to persuade an administrator to purchase more titles by her. Or, I’ll try to find other books at Amazon or Abe Books or Alibris or Awesomebooks.
    A question: Have you ever read any of Diana Norman’s historical fiction — not those using Ariana Franklin? I would probably have to buy them from Amazon UK.

    • I haven’t read Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin but several people whose views I respect have, and highly recommend her books. None of Vanda Symons’ books are published in the UK so the only way we can get them is by second-hand online purchase — there is no way they’d appear in a library here under these circumstances & with library budgets being what they are now.

  2. Maxine – Thanks for this excellent review. I agree that the Sam Shepherd character is well-constructed. There’s a nice balance there between strength and vulnerability, and I like her sense of humour. And of course, I’m a sucker for the story’s setting ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks, Margot, it makes a nice change to read about a NZ setting. A friend of mine went to Dunedin for a few years so I have heard quite a bit about it while she was there, but not quite the perspective provided in this book, eg fewer bodies and drugs ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I’ve never heard of Symon – and the book sounds worth the effort. Looks like you can get them via Amazon, although the first one costs an arm and a leg …

    • Yes, that’s the only way you can get them in the UK (via internet sellers who have Aus/NZ editions – or Crime Watch NZ blog, linked here, sometimes gives away her books – one on offer at the moment though not a series novel). Pity, as I think the Sam Shepherd series would do quite well over here, along lines of Kathryns Howell and Fox for example.

      • I’ll have a poke around. I’ve ordered Aussie books once or twice from Abebooks dealers. The prices haven’t been too awful, but they’ve come by sea, so no good if you’re in a hurry!

  4. Sounds like a great book Maxine and I have actually been to Dunedin. I had great fish and chips there. It is quite a small place and it will be interesting to see how it is portrayed. I can imagine it being tough for a woman policeman there.

    • That’s how a non-Antipodean person can tell the difference between someone from NZ and someone from Australia, according to tradition, I heard – ask the person to say “fish and chips”. If the answer is “fush and chups” they are from NZ. No idea if true!

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  6. Glad you enjoyed it Maxine. I hope the UK gets to see more of Vanda’s books at a better price too

  7. This whole geographic restrictions thing is nonsense isn’t it – sadly it hurts authors from outside the US and UK much more than the other way around (it is much easier and cheaper for me to get British and American books than it is for you to get Aussie/NZ ones). The authors must wonder why they bother sometimes – even a successful author here will only sell a few thousand books – hardly enough to make a living.

    Glad you liked the book though – and Sam – she can be a little bit annoying but I like that about her – twenty-something women can be a little bit annoying. I’m sure I was. Of course I am perfect now ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ha ha, Bernadette! Yep, a “bit older than 20” is the perfect age ๐Ÿ˜‰ . Even best selling books over here tend not to sell more than a few thousand (unless exceptional, like that wretched 50 shades of grey at the moment, or The Hunger Games trilogy or Harry Potter in its heyday). I am regularly amazed (though should not be as I know it) when I look at the top 30 -50 bestselling books in the UK each week and see a lot in the 100s. Paperbacks do better of course, but not hugely.

  8. Hi Maxine – Thanks for this review. I haven’t read a NZ book before so I think I’ll give this a try. Is there a NZ crime fiction writer that you think stands above all the rest? I was going to comment on the very limited availability of Symon’s other books but that’s been well covered above. Then I came to your adjective for “50 shades” and I laughed out loud. I had started to read it a few weeks ago and noted the 50 different adjectives for “blushing” in the first 75 pages. Then all the characters were gasping all over the place, even our cool, rich, 20ish hero – gasp, gasp, gasp. Then came the rules of their proposed relationship. Then I quit. I never quit on a book. Never. There are a number of books I should have quit on, but I always plod along. “Wretched” is kind.

  9. Oh no! Sounds even worse than I had assumed, Ken. Glad you broke your rule, you would have been quite out of breath by the end ๐Ÿ˜‰
    I haven’t read many NZ crime novels mainly for availability reasons. I’ve read and enjoyed one of Felicity Young’s, again second hand via Amazon. There is also Paul Cleave who is more on the horror/crime interface (not my cup of tea) and who has had at least one book issued in the UK. The best blog/advice for NZ crime is Craig’s blog, Crime Watch, link above in discussion or in sidebar on Petrona main page. Craig reviews all (I think!) NZ crime fic and is always pleased to give advice. The main problem is getting hold of copies outside the Aus/NZ “publisher rights” zone.
    Oh, the most famous NZ crime author is Ngaio Marsh who wrote her books many years ago – Insepctor Alleyn and his wife Troy, an artist. I read these a long time ago. They are still in print in the UK. They are of the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers type/era, though, so will have dated class structures, etc, in them. I enjoyed them at the time, not sure I would do so if I read them again now.

  10. “Wretched” is a good word. I have no intention of even looking at the covers of those books. Do not like books where women are objectified and in unequal roles …. I keep wondering and worrying if these books help to set back women’s gains of the last 50 years. The books are even being lauded on the major networks’ morning shows.
    And “The Hungry Games” movie is raking in big bucks. Should I be concerned because the violence is overwhelming, with children killing children? The idea is horrific.

    • My younger daughter enjoyed the books about 5 years ago, before all this fuss about the movies. I think they are quite dark for children but enjoyable for them. Harry Potter is probably a lot better but those have been read so many times in our house…
      I agree with you about women’s gains. Women being complicit in this makes it even worse (eg when they write trash like this 50 shades type of thing). Some of the TV shows I have seen only briefly in passing make me vomit, eg the US and UK “Top model” series where young women are verbally attacked and criticised if their clothes and make-up are not “good enough” – sometimes by unbelievably smarmy disgusting men but also by women on these so-called judging panels, eg Elle Macpherson – who should hang their heads in shame. Just think of the effect on their impressionable young, female viewers.

  11. Yes. But a woman wrote the 50 Shades, although on TV she laughs about it and doesn’t take it seriously … all the way to the bank! All three books on top U.S. NYT ebooks, hardcover, paperback. I don’t know the appeal. If women are interested, there are other possibilities, but not books that degrade women! That a woman is profiting from. For shame. Maybe she should have to give big donations to the National Organization for Women and the Rape Crisis Centers and women’s shelters and Victim’s Rights Centers to help real women.

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