Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
The recent surge in quality New Zealand crime fiction, including the latest works from Nelsonian Lindy Kelly, Cantabrian Paul Cleave and Dunedin-ite Vanda Symon, shows that Kiwi writers (well, at least the South Island ones) can weave mysteries, thrillers and police procedurals every bit as good as the international offerings packing our bookstores’ shelves. But what about the North Island? Surely our biggest city, our artsy capital, or the farm-gilded rural highways and byways that criss-cross ‘the fish of Maui’ could provide equally fertile ground for dastardly deeds, fiction-wise?
Enter former bookseller and young Auckland-based writer Andrea Jutson. Part of that pleasing upturn in local crime-writing, Jutson has released two novels set in the City of Sails, and is currently working on a third. The Darkness Looking Back continues her psychic-tinged crime series, bringing back the sometimes-team of reluctant medium James Paxton and semi-skeptical Detective Constable Andy Stirling.
Paxton and Stirling find themselves knee-deep in another murder mystery after a pizza delivery boy stumbles across a body at a house in the Auckland suburbs. Stirling, stumped by the grisly but seemingly motiveless crime, visits Paxton, hoping for ‘unofficial’ help. When another bashed and stabbed body is found by another delivery-person, the case quickly takes a more sinister twist, especially when it becomes apparent a game-playing serial killer is targeting unfaithful women. Then Paxton’s involvement is leaked to the media and public hysteria ensues – complicating both Paxton’s personal life, and an already difficult investigation for Stirling and his New Zealand Police colleagues.
I have to confess to being somewhat concerned before I started reading, as some authors imbue their fiction with the supernatural or paranormal seemingly as a gimmick, perhaps hoping to putty over cracks in thin characters or story. However, I needn’t have worried - one of the best things about The Darkness Looking Back is Jutson’s depiction and use of Paxton and his psychic abilities. Neither contrived nor clichéd, Paxton is a fascinating and reasonably complex character - not a cardboard cutout of the average “psychic” tabloid columnist or wannabe TV celebrity. In fact he doesn’t even want his special abilities, eschews publicity and profit-making, and sometimes accidentally hinders the police even when he feels forced to help.
I also enjoyed the ‘piss-taking’ and gallows humour atmosphere amongst Stirling and his police colleagues – realistic team dynamics that some authors avoid. Overall, a well-rendered supporting cast of café owners, headline-hunting journalists, and secrets-keeping suburbanites populates an interesting storyline that largely keeps you on the hook. Topped off nicely by moments of humour and domesticity that provide a breather from the dark deeds, it’s an enjoyable local read for crime fiction fans.
This review was originally published in print in Issue 116 of NZLawyer magazine (10 July 2009) and is reprinted here online with permission