- Publish Date
- Thursday, 15 February 2018, 5:42PM
- By Stephanie Jones
The crime writer Karin Slaughter grew up in a small town in the American South where, she has said, “nothing bad ever happened – it was like Mayberry.” Slaughter has, perhaps not without private amusement, transmuted that serenity into a large catalogue of good novels full of badness, and Nikki Crutchley, in offers something similar in Nothing Bad Happens Here, an interesting case study of a fictional Coromandel town that has fallen for its own idyllic legend.
Castle Bay is a place people come to for respite, Sergeant Kahu Parata chief among them. He fled the ultraviolent South Auckland beat 10 years earlier, and life is good, even if the family he and his wife had hoped for never eventuated. When the body of a missing girl, Bethany Haliwell, is discovered, it’s the first serious event to touch the town in a decade.
Kahu’s boss, the boorish station chief, would be tyrannical if he only he possessed an ounce of natural smarts, so it’s easy to rule him out as either the perpetrator or solver of the crime. In whodunnits, the cop-journo dynamic is tried and true, and Kahu’s counterpoint arrives in the form of Miller Hatcher, a 20-something reporter sent to cover the investigation for a national magazine.
Miller is accompanied by several brisk pieces of exposition that aren’t the craftiest but get the job done, and with them we learn Castle Bay is tiny – less than 1,000 people – except in the bustling summer, and Miller suffers from alcohol dependency and self-harm stemming in part from the death of her mother.
Another essential element of the subgenre is the red herring, and Crutchley’s plentiful catch will not be spoiled here. The sprawling cast harbours plenty of suspects, though everyone Miller speaks to insists the dead girl must have met her end at the hands of an outsider, because, the words of one long-time resident, “Castle Bay is the safest place in New Zealand.”
Certainly, no ego is safe in the vicinity of the hilariously awful Patricia Edgington-Whiteley, the mayor’s wife and a local real estate agent (or, in her elevated terminology, “realtor”) who lives to laud her privilege over everyone else. She roams the town like an unloved matriarch and is ever-present at group meetings at Haven, the women’s retreat Miller visits for professional and personal help.
The smoothness of the narrative is impressive and its momentum rarely flags, but there are a few bum notes: would a lead detective at a media stand-up for a new investigation refer “murder” rather than “homicide” while omitting to mention a post-mortem examination?
At times, Crutchley goes for the easy cliché, and there are one or two outright errors of usage (“She drunk so she could talk to the cute guys” is part of a passage that crystallises Miller’s alcohol problem but misuses the past participle). And a full subplot about the Paratas, hinted at but unexplored, would have been a welcome extra dimension; with luck, Kahu will reappear in a future novel.
These are matters of polish rather than substance, however. Crutchley has entered the booming local crime fiction scene with panache and a mischievous poke at the self-regard – or mass delusion – of those who dwell in some of New Zealand’s more sublime places.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
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