Monday, February 15, 2010

R is for THE RINGMASTER by Vanda Symon

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of “R”.

Given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two, this week I am including a post on THE RINGMASTER, the second Sam Shephard novel from Kiwi crime writer Vanda Symon.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post is a reprint of part of an NZLawyer article from late 2008, which looked at some then-recent New Zealand crime fiction.

by Vanda Symon (Penguin, 2008)
Dunedin writer Vanda Symon’s follow-up to her excellent debut OVERKILL (Penguin, 2007) finds heroine Sam Shepherd having moved to Dunedin from Mataura; bridges burnt. Undertaking detective training, Shepherd’s on the bottom rung of the ladder, battling her grudge-holding boss for any involvement.

THE RINGMASTER opens with a murder in the Botanic Gardens, before switching to stroppy Sam’s first-person narration. Marginalised, she struggles to participate in the investigation, working in her own time and feeding off the scraps her partner Smithy smuggles her way. She eventually uncovers a link between the visiting circus, and a series of deaths throughout the lower South Island.

Of the many admirable aspects of Symon’s storytelling, chief is her creation of Sam Shepherd, a protagonist you want to follow; headstrong, passionate, and flawed. A talented detective, but not infallible. Shepherd puts herself out there, cares, makes mistakes, and has real emotions; fear, jealousy, anger, sadness. She’s human, real, and well-rounded.

Symon shows a talent for creating rounded characters throughout, from Shepherd’s friend Maggie, the ‘voice of reason’, to nemesis characters such as DI Johns and circus owner Terry Bennett. Symon ensures that even the antagonists ring true; they have good points as well as bad, and have understandable motives for their objectionable behaviour. Another impressive facet is her use of the Dunedin setting. From the opening murder beside the Leith, to Highlanders games, and student life, Symon brings alive this southern city. When interviewed, Symon has said, “a town will have a feel, a social background. I like using Dunedin. It has a vibrancy and an edge with the students and all that brings with it.”

THE RINGMASTER is a great read. Symon populates a good story with great characters, and unique touches in a distinctly Kiwi setting. It comes together a little quickly at the end, but leaves you wanting more of Sam Shepherd. And, taking a leaf out from her international contemporaries, Symon provides just that; the first chapter of the next Sam Shepherd adventure, CONTAINMENT is included. I can’t wait.


  1. Craig - Thanks for this review :). You put your finger on such an important factor in any literature - strong characterization. To me, that's central. Of course, in crime fiction, the mystery, the suspense, etc., should be there, too, but characters and plot are so important, aren't they?

  2. Characterisation makes a book for me - plus plot and mystery of course. I don't know Symon's books at all - more to look out for!

  3. This is an excellent book Craig. My review. Thanks for highlighting the book and for promoting the meme.