Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Review: THE RINGMASTER by Vanda Symon
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 Shephard, a protagonist you want to follow; headstrong, passionate, and flawed. A talented detective, but not infallible. Shephard 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 Shephard’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 Shephard.
This review was originally published in the 14 November 2008 issue of NZLawyer magazine