There are never enough new crime fiction writers and/or novels in Australia every year (okay so I'm greedy!), but there are certainly never enough quite as good as STORM PEAK which is John A Flanagan's first crime fiction novel, and I'm certainly cheering for more.
STORM PEAK is set in Colorado in the US, and I hope a reader would be hard-pressed to pick that the setting isn't the author's own, except perhaps for the use of the much beloved u (in spelling). Setting away from the author's home base can sometimes not work - little inaccuracies in dialect and/or terminology can clang badly, but very little seemed not to fit. There's a central male character - Jesse Parker, ex-Denver police detective, returned to civilian life in his hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado after a stake-out goes horribly wrong. Add a central female character - Lee Torrens is the local sheriff, local girl, ex-childhood friend and teenage sweetheart of Jesse. There's still some ongoing sexual and romantic attachment between them. Tentative attempts to re-establish a personal relationship after many years, rapidly goes pear-shaped when Jesse's journalist ex-wife appears in town. His ex-wife is in town because there's a serial killer in Steamboat Springs. Not exactly a series of elements that would immediately make me like the sound of this book. So my sheer enjoyment of it came as somewhat of a surprise for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the setting, the tone and the characters seemed to fit like a hand in a tailor-made glove. Secondly, despite the on-again / off-again / will she / won't he relationship between Jesse and Lee, there's also a feeling of reality about the difficulties of somebody going home, and everyone trying to pick up the pieces after many years. The balance of the relationship versus police work and the killer's activities was good - the personal certainly didn't cloud or overshadow the main thread of the book, and it added some pace and texture at points. The serial killer element worked despite a reasonably predictable motivation, mostly because of the nature of the killings - random targets, often in public places, there's a level of bravado that makes this killer less sick and creepy, more dangerous and edgy.
Jesse's rapidly drafted in as a Deputy Sheriff to help investigate the killings, and there's obviously going to be pressure from on high, with the town relying on tourist traffic, and tourist hang-outs being amongst the killer's preferred stalking locations. The tension at the end of the book is ramped up quickly with a dangerous battle to save the girl, a nice little twist and a follow-up hefty dose of a happy ending. By that stage that didn't make me want to cringe, and overall, this book was extremely entertaining. I hope the publisher's entering STORM PEAK in the Best First Crime Novel category of the Ned Kelly awards this year, it would be very interesting to see how it goes.