Sunday, August 5, 2018


OVERKILL by Vanda Symon (Orenda Books, 2018)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems. 

Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon discovers the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast said her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands. To find the murderer... and clear her name. 

A taut, atmospheric and pageturning thriller, Overkill marks the start of an unputdownable and unforgettable series from one of New Zealand s finest crime writers.

I had read a few of Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard novels, but not the first.  So, when Overkill was re-published this year for the European market I read it – and I am so glad I did – it is so very good!!

To start, Overkill has the most terrifying Prologue!  You are still reeling from that when you meet Sam Shephard.  Sam is the local police constable in the “small town in the back of beyond” that is Mataura, 15 minutes from Gore – but Gore is “a different world”.  Sam likes her job, and her flat-mate Maggie, she is sort of over the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Lockie, has got married and started a family (apart from the occasional lapse and a brick through their window), but she does sometimes wish her life was bit more exciting.

What she wasn’t meaning by excitement was Lockie’s wife Gaby going missing, or her gut feeling that Gaby was dead being right, or that due to her instincts and proactive investigation she would eventually fall under suspicion as being the murderer.  Sam uncovers various suspects, and her methods are inventive, they must be, as Sam is a petite woman in a world where the official command centre smells “heavily of male, even with the windows thrown open’.  Wait till you read how she gets a private interview with a nurse who works for a person of interest!

Sam is smart, inventive and impossible to manage.  She continues to work on the case, even when instructed to keep away, and she is a wonderful mix of female energy and clear-headedness – although she does still get a bit befuddled around Lockie, and wonders about how difficult the carpet will be to clean as she watches her own blood spill on to it.  The scene where she tries to change a tyre on a remote stretch of road with no cell-phone coverage and only cows for an audience, is hilarious.

Overkill is full of the smell of cow-shit and beer, and good old Zild : “I almost came a greaser”, “I could almost have paraded across in the nuddy”, “… you’re a dag girl” etc.  And captures the feel of small town New Zealand delightfully. But, there is a serious side to Overkill and Symon balances this nicely with the humour and scattier side of Sam.

Overkill is a murder mystery where a woman has died, and Gaby’s death is treated with respect, from the trauma of the young man who found her body, to the documenting of the prioritising of male voices that led to some of the grief Gaby was experiencing while she was alive.  And in Sam’s development through the novel as she comes to appreciate Gaby’s worth as “a wife, mother and human being”.

So, a highly recommended New Zealand murder mystery, with a complex New Zealand plot, great Kiwi characters, a solution that shakes the very foundations of New Zealand rural identity and a firebrand of a series character in Sam Shephard, read it!

Alyson Baker is a crime-loving librarian in Nelson. This review first appeared on her blog, which you can check out here

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