In The Student Body, Simon Wyatt takes the reader on a thrilling journey to catch a killer through his eyes as a former police detective. A popular fifteen-year-old girl is strangled to death at a school camp on Auckland's west coast. The posing of the body suggests a sexual motive. Nick Knight, a week into his role as a newly promoted detective sergeant, is tasked with the critical job of leading the Suspects Team.Nick - who turned his back on a lucrative career as a lawyer - is well-versed at dealing with the dark sides of human nature.
In case you hadn't noticed there's a number of debut novels recently out of New Zealand, often written by authors with a policing or related background, many of them telegraphing potential for interesting things to come. THE STUDENT BODY is Serious Fraud Office investigator Simon Wyatt's first novel, written while on sick leave recovering from a rare, and potentially life-threatening autoimmune disorder.
The central character in this novel, Detective Sergeant Nick Knight, is a little bit different from current day crime fictional norms in that he's a young, not yet cynical cop, in a murder enquiry team after a few years of adult sex crimes investigations. Readers may see something in the link between his experience of sex crimes, and the death of a young female student, found semi-naked, strangled and dumped in the bush near a school camp. From the circumstances, sexual motivation is upper-most on everyone's mind. But there are secrets to be found amongst her family, school teachers and friends, the community around the camp, as well as those in her home neighbourhood.
Wyatt's background in policing is very obvious in THE STUDENT BODY, deployed to great effect when revealing the inner workings of CIB, not as effective when describing characters in ways that have more than a whiff of wanted poster about them. It's obviously an extremely difficult balancing act to get the information on internal workings and readability right though, and whilst at some level details can be fascinating, it's not quite as successful when the reader can't quite shake the sense of an exam coming up. Having said that the personal touches: the baking provided by lower ranks in the team, and the difficult family dynamics, in particular, are well done. Because the story is told from Nick's point of view it's hard to avoid the idea that he might not be seeing the full picture on some things and his observations about family members, relationships with colleagues etc have just the slightest feeling of unreliability about them. On the other hand, there's some nice sprinklings of humour dotted throughout and not just the gallows style that could be expected in a police procedural.
It's in the shadows of Nick's personality that there's particularly interesting hints. He's not perfect, he's self-centred, and on the face of it his difficult relationships with a lot of people could be coming from both sides. Which probably also sums up THE STUDENT BODY. It's not perfect, it's got the odd continuity issue, a few clanging terminology / naming problems, and an ending that reads like a lot of heavy lifting of a lot of elements in a big hurry. Overall, however, THE STUDENT BODY is a promising first take, and it will be worth seeing what happens in any follow-up novel.
Review - The Agency, Ian Austin
Dan Calder is an ex Brit and ex policeman looking for a fresh start in a new country but still carrying the baggage of failed relationships and a depressed, repressed past. He chose New Zealand because it was as far as he could get from his old life but did not take into account the universal six degrees of separation is no more than two or three in the land of the long white cloud.
The opening salvo in what's to be an ongoing series, THE AGENCY introduces the character of Dan Calder. Calder has joined the police force in the UK - following in his father's footsteps. His father had a successful public life and career, although the truth of their home life was very different. Ultimately, Calder finds himself on a collision course with authority, leaving the force and his home country behind, hoping to put his past behind him once and for all.
After setting himself up in his new home in New Zealand, he finds himself living next door to a very welcoming couple in Paul and Shelley who become his closest friends, determined to set him up with a life partner. When they introduce Calder to Tara, it feels like this is a relationship that could work. He also discovers she has a brother Neil who suffers from depression, and from there his cop instincts are tweaked by something going on with Neil.
This leads to the discovery of the shadowy and decidedly suspect "Agency" - formed by a woman with a variety of identities - preying on vulnerable people. Needless to say this sets Calder off on a quest to discover who the mysterious Stenning woman is, and what exactly The Agency has been up to, eventually linking them to an unsolved case in the UK.
Austin's background as a UK and NZ police officer is very obvious in this work. Perhaps a little too obvious at points as a solid plot is sometimes hampered by a tendency to provide a lot of background police procedural information. The same with plot advancement which can be lost in favour of personal sidelines and interests which go on for way too long. Interaction between the characters is mostly pretty good, although can sometimes lack normal conversational flow, and there is a tendency to reiterate plot points from multiple character viewpoints, bogging the reader down in "Groundhog Day" for no good reason.
The plot itself is a particularly interesting idea, and the way that the investigation is undertaken by Calder convincing. The minor flaws that are there are easily resolved, which does mean that overall THE AGENCY is another novel from New Zealand that's telegraphing serious potential for an ongoing character based series.