Recently San Diego mystery author and professor Margot Kinberg visited New Zealand for a conference, which gave me the opportunity to meet Margot in person, show her around Auckland, and finangle a few Kiwi crime novels into her hands. I'm pleased to see that Margot not only enjoyed her time in New Zealand, but she's already read and enjoyed some of the Kiwi crime ficiton she took home with her. Today, Margot is here on Crime Watch as a guest reviewer, sharing her thoughts on Paddy Richardson's HUNTING BLIND, which was a finalist for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award.
Reviewed by Margot Kinberg
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind is a compelling story that has stayed with me. It all begins in 1988 at a school picnic in Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand. Minna Anderson and her four children are enjoying the lakeside picnic with everyone else when the unthinkable happens: Minna’s four-year-old daughter Gemma disappears. Everyone takes part in searching for the child but there is no trace of her, not even a body. The family is torn apart by the tragedy, but there is no evidence so eventually the investigation is called off. Each of the Andersons moves on as best they can but Gemma’s disappearance has left scars on everyone.
Fourteen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is finishing her psychiatry program in Dunedin. She does function, but even she admits that she cannot face the pain of her sister’s loss and really, she has never healed. Then she’s assigned a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who’s attempted suicide and is completely uncommunicative. Stephanie tries to reach out to Elizabeth is at first unsuccessful. Bit by bit, though, Elizabeth begins to trust her doctor and soon tells Stephanie her terrible story. Elizabeth’s younger sister Gracie disappeared one night, and no trace of her has been found.
Stephanie is haunted by how eerily similar Elizabeth’s story is to her own. She’s reluctant to pursue this because she knows the risks of getting too close to one’s patients. She feels compelled though and gently probes until she finds out as much as she can. Stephanie guesses that the same person who abducted Gracie might have abducted her own sister, so against her more rational judgement, she starts putting the pieces of Gemma’s disappearance together and trying to find out who wrought that havoc on her family and Elizabeth’s.
For me, this novel is much the story of how survivors of tragedy cope as it is anything else. In fact, that’s why Stephanie begins what even she admits is an irrational quest – she wants to cope and move on. Richardson effectively portrays the sense of guilt that each member of the Anderson family has for not being able to take better care of Gemma. She also shows clearly how guilt and pain affect the members of the family. The characters stay with one because they are authentic.
In fact, that authenticity is one of this novel’s strongest points. People really do behave as the members of both Stephanie Anderson’s and Elizabeth Clark’s families do in the wake of horrible loss. I found myself caring about these people because they aren’t uni-dimensional. What’s even better is that they don’t all behave in the same way. We get a real sense of how differently people cope with sudden devastating loss.
Another very strong point in this novel is the unforgettable setting. As Stephanie searches for Gemma’s abductor, she travels to several places on South Island, and each is described in lovely but not overburdening detail. One gets a really authentic sense of life there not just from the physical setting but from several other little touches that really add to the context.
The mystery itself is not an intellectual puzzler. Soon after Stephanie begins asking questions, it’s evident who abducted the two girls and how that person got close to them. But the solution makes sense given the kind of story it is, and Richardson reveals the solution in a believable way.
The story moves back and forth a bit in time, and even though I had no problem figuring out what time period was being discussed, that did stop me a bit. Also, the story’s written for the most part in the present tense. That’s not my preference, and I found it a bit difficult at first. But those are minor quibbles to be sure, and mostly a matter of preference. Overall Richardson tells a gripping and truly human story of what happens when families have to cope with the unthinkable. And to her credit, she does so with no gore, brutal, ugly violence or gratuitousness. I recommend Hunting Blind. Thanks again, Craig, for inviting me to review it.
Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read and talk about mystery and crime fiction. She is the author of PUBLISH OR PERISH and B-VERY FLAT, and blogs about crime fiction at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.
Thank you Margot for the well-written and comprehensive review.