Saturday, April 1, 2017


THE DAMSELFLY by SJI Holliday (Black & White Publishing, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Katie Taylor is the perfect student. She’s bright, funny, has a boyfriend who adores her and there are only a few months left of school before she can swap Banktoun for the bright lights of London. Life gets even better when she has an unexpected win on a scratch card. But then Katie’s luck runs out.

Her tragic death instead becomes the latest in a series of dark mysteries blighting the small town. The new school counsellor Polly McAllister, who has recently returned to Banktoun to make amends in her own personal life, is thrown in at the deep end as the pupils and staff come to terms with Katie’s death. And it’s not long before she uncovers a multitude of murky secrets. Did Katie have enemies? Is her boyfriend really so squeaky clean? And who is her brother’s mysterious friend?

With Banktoun’s insular community inflamed by gossip and a baying mob stirring itself into a frenzy on social media, DS Davie Gray and DC Louise Jennings must work out who really murdered Katie before someone takes matters into their own hands ...

There's a wonderful creepiness to the third book in SJI Holliday's Banktoun trilogy, a dark energy and unsettling atmosphere threaded through the writing. THE DAMSELFLY grips early, and doesn't let go. I started it thinking I'd read a few chapters on a lunch break, and ended up not putting it down until I'd finished the whole thing. It's that good. Dark, twisted, with a great balance between well-drawn characters, a wonderfully evocative small-town setting, and a propulsive storyline.

Back in the 1990s, groundbreaking New Zealand crime writer Paul Thomas wrote an award-winning trilogy of gritty crime novels that had a beloved recurring detective, Tito Ihaka, who was never actually the 'main character' in any of the novels. Similarly, Holliday has a Banktoun cop, Davie Gray (now promoted to being a Detective in this third book), who is in all the books, tying them together, and who investigates the crimes, but isn't in fact ever the main central character in any of the books.

Holliday creates an intriguing cast of characters beyond the investigating police, from Katie's troubled family to a teacher rightly or wrongly in the crosshairs to new school counselor Polly, who is returning to Banktoun after years away. There's a real feel of a small town, with connective tissue of varying strengths running between its citizens, but plenty of secrets behind twitching curtains.

There's a really strong narrative drive to THE DAMSELFLY, which hurtles along at great pace without feeling 'breezy' or 'thin' by skimping on character and setting. There's a lovely tension, while at the same time plenty of depth. A strong voice, even with the multiple viewpoints.

THE DAMSELFLY is a five-star level book from an exciting newer voice in British crime writing, the kind of book that makes you want to immediately go and grab another tale from SJI Holliday.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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