Wednesday, July 20, 2016


THE AGENCY by Ian Austin (June 2016)

Reviewed by Stephanie Jones

Dan Calder is an ex Brit and ex policeman looking for a fresh start in a new country but still carrying the baggage of failed relationships and a depressed, repressed past. He chose New Zealand because it was as far as he could get from his old life. The Agency provides a service like no other and New Zealand is the ideal location to find a new client. When Calder first encounters it by sheer chance, his life instantly changes and before long others are depending on him too. 

Engaged in a deadly game with an unknown foe; this was not the new life Dan Calder planned for himself but now at stake is the ultimate reward; his own salvation. 

For all the advances made by women in recent decades, the profession of serial killing remains dominated by men. The few outliers who spring to mind were, in most instances, co-conspirators to men, the Ian Bradys and Fred Wests and Charles Mansons who are assumed to have called the shots. But in Ian Austin’s cat-and-mouse thriller THE AGENCY, the villain is a globe-trotting femme fatale who kills for money, answers to no one, and changes her appearance and identity with the ease and speed of a spy.

The would-be conqueror of Veronica Stenning is former detective Dan Calder, who left the UK police force in hazy circumstances in 2008 and now, a little more than three years later, is living in Auckland, training for a marathon and awaiting some unforeseeable opportunity. Calder’s childhood experience of family violence was compounded by his colleagues’ veneration of his abusive father, also a senior officer, and resulted in symptoms of PTSD and a unquenchable instinct to put the world to rights.

Stenning is the owner-operator of The Agency, a shadowy outfit that promises to grant the end-of-life wishes of anyone with a spare quarter-million pounds or so. In one highly effective scene, the misleading nature of The Agency’s marketing dawns on a terminally ill pensioner moments too late, and Stenning’s artful, scrupulously planned chicanery is exposed.

When Stenning chances to follow Calder’s path to New Zealand, and fishes for new victims by hacking into a mental health website and emailing those who have used it, she snags Calder. His inner sleuth is roused and is quick to obsess over the trail of breadcrumbs left for him – but which morsels are lures and which mistakes?

Calder’s only distractions are his long runs and friendly next-door neighbours who set him up with a love interest, Tara, who assumes a Girl Friday role as Dan goes after his prey (not the only way in which THE AGENCY recalls Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels; both men work off the books and are motivated by a steely morality that nonetheless admits some rule-bending in support of loftier aims).

THE AGENCY reverberates with police voices, and as in so many detective novels, much of the fun is in the easy banter and camaraderie of cops – their secret language, their unabashed faith in and affection for one another. Calder even loves the grunt work, enjoying an observations post – a stake-out – more and more as the long, listless hours go by, and emerging red-eyed, reeking and triumphant. The frustrations, too, might be Austin’s own, as when Calder revisits unfinished business and contacts a British paedophile whose conviction he was unable to secure, and who he now uses for intel, to his own great distaste.

Though the plot is hearty there is some boggy ground in the pacing. A few scenes persist too long, and it’s not uncommon for one character to recount to another events the reader has already seen. Dialogue doesn’t always sound conversational, and minor language mishaps – “palate” rather than “palette”, a reference to the designer “Donna Karen” – distract the pedantic reader.

The suspense of THE AGENCY lies in how Calder will net his prey and in the tantalizing loose ends left by Austin, who with this novel begins a trilogy that promises to answer the intriguing question of what prompted the end of Calder’s police career in the UK. Auckland crime fiction is home to a few good men; add Dan Calder to their ranks.

Stephanie Jones is the book reviewer for Coast FM radio in New Zealand, and a member of the judging panel for the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. You can read many of her Coast FM reviews here

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