It’s Brisbane, 1999. Three men have been savagely murdered during a flood. Lara Ocean, a fledgling homicide detective of seven months and her veteran partner, Billy Waterson, arrest seventeen-year-old student, Jen White. The media labels Jen ‘The Slayer’ and she is sentenced to life in prison.
Twenty years later and Queensland is in drought. Jen is released on parole and Lara is now the Police Commissioner. The Attorney-General threatens to terminate the president of the parole board and all its members unless they put Jen back in prison. Meanwhile, The Slayer plans to take advantage of Jen’s release – they will kill again, unless Jen can find a way to stop them.
Blood River is the first standalone novel from Australian author, writer and producer, Tony Cavanaugh, who is the author of the Darian Richards series. He is also responsible for a long list of memorable Australian productions including the award-winning mini-series The Day of the Roses and the story of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, Through My Eyes, as well as a writer/editor for the television game show series Cluedo, which, despite what his website bio states, I haven’t forgotten and it wasn’t dreadful!
Female detectives are becoming more prevalent in Australian crime fiction, with Sarah Bailey’s Gemma Woodstock novels (The Dark Lake, Into the Night), and James Patterson and Candice Fox’s Detective Harriet Blue series topping recent bestseller lists. Lara Ocean is another intriguing, flawed and carefully rendered protagonist, a tenacious detective with a complicated backstory spurred by rebellion – drug use and dangerous boyfriends. We meet her in 1999 through the eyes of another character – “the youngest detective in the Squad, ever, a twentysomething Asian with dyed blonde hair”. She’s busy trying to balance the pressure from her traditionalist mother to get married and have babies with her desire to work her way to the top of the police force.
Blood River bounces between many different viewpoints with the narrative separated into five parts, each beginning with lyrics from the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”. It’s the first person narration from Lara and from Jen that drive the story forward – both engaging characters with strong voices. There are also scenes with an omniscient viewpoint scattered throughout, including two graduate engineers who stand staring at the rising waters of the Wivenhoe Dam, trying to decide if they should open the sluice gates. The effect of these varying viewpoints is as though the reader is watching a movie, which is hardly surprising given Cavanaugh’s lucrative career writing and producing for screen. He also has an excellent and almost disturbing grasp of the voice of The Slayer to the point where, on several occasions, I nearly skipped to the next section because I couldn’t bear to be inside their twisted mind any longer.
With the majority of Australian crime fiction set in and around Sydney or Melbourne, I was interested to read a novel set in Brisbane, especially having enjoyed recent local crime drama, Harrow (ABC), which is filmed predominately in Brisbane. The Blood River murders occur at the iconic Kangaroo Point cliffs and the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, with several other notable locations also featured – the Breakfast Creek Hotel, Racecourse Road and the upmarket suburb of Ascot. The feel of Brisbane is expertly painted onto the page with descriptions of jacaranda trees lining the footpaths, tumble-down Queenslanders, and of course, the sub-tropical humidity and fierce heat of a Brisbane summer. The fictional murders are grounded in real-life local crimes, some of the gruesome details being quite similar to the 1989 Brisbane ‘Vampire Killer’.
In an interview with Hachette, Tony Cavanaugh states he was keen to explore the notion of the doppelgänger and there are many dualities and contrasts throughout Blood River – 1999 versus 2019, the odd coupling of Lara and Billy, flood versus drought; and within the lives of each main character – Lara’s chequered past is the opposite side of the coin to her professional and upstanding future as a Police Commissioner; Jen’s innocence versus the necessity for her to find the killer inside so she can have a future; and, the real killer, who is living a lie and waits like a dormant volcano ready to wake up for one last hurrah.
Another thing I found clever were the name choices for each character – an Ocean and a Waterson introduced during a flood, and I think the real name of The Slayer may have been chosen due to it’s connection to a drought, but I won’t say anything further here in case I give it away.
The mystery of The Slayer’s identity had me intrigued and as it turns out, I did correctly guess the killer earlier in the novel (an instinctive choice), but then became distracted by red herrings, only to discover I’d been right at the start. The author has planted enough crafty clues to enable the reader to guess correctly – but beware of sneaky misdirection (or if you prefer, you can enjoy being tricked).
A solid piece of entertaining, clever, and thoughtful crime fiction, Blood River was a story I read quickly, eager to find out what was going to happen, and which stayed with me long after I’d finished.
Blood River by Tony Cavanaugh is published by Hachette Australia.
‘Yes?’ I said to Billy, still looking out the window at the mass of brown river water, flowing under the Victoria Bridge on its journey downstream to the ocean like an impatient humbering flow of low beasts.