Friday, February 8, 2019


THE RINGMASTER by Vanda Symon (Orenda Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Alyson Baker

Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?

Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin. Is the murderer in the circus or closer to home?

Sam must find out who's running the show.

The death of a brilliant young woman, a circus in town, high stakes university research, the ringmaster a monster of a boss, a critical Mum, and a persistent suitor – just some of the happenings in Sam Shephard’s second outing, this time as a trainee detective in Dunedin.

I had jumped into the Sam Shephard novels from the third novel, Containment, and am so glad the series is being re-released for the European market, prompting me to go back to the beginning.  I loved the first: Overkill, and the second: The Ringmaster is equally good.  Sam Shephard is a wonderful mix of smarts and goofiness, but is someone you would definitely want in your corner if you got in a fix.

Throughout the wide-ranging plot of The Ringmaster is the image of a young woman, Rose-Marie Bateman, face-down dead in the Water of the Leith in Dunedin Botanic Garden. This is the image constantly reappearing in Sam’s mind as she fights bullying in the force, sexism in the city, and a mounting sense of danger to her own safety. Added to that is great guilt for her actions in one of the most riveting incidents in the book, one that had me, and Sam, in tears.

Alongside all the threats and idiots Sam has to deal with, are some really great supports; her mate Maggie, her partner Smithy, and her Dad, laid low in hospital.  And there is Detective Paul Frost, up from Gore for a court appearance, a “sexier version of Ben Affleck”, and popping up all over the place.

Sam is marginalised from the heart of the investigation into Rose-Marie’s murder and told to manage the various problems with the circus that has come to town; but that doesn’t stop her discovering links between the Dunedin murder and others in the region, having suspicions about various players, and arriving at a vital clue in cracking the murder case with a flash of feminine intuition about how it could have been carried out.

The Ringmaster is funny, sad and there is some interesting psychology at play as well: How can you logically profile illogical crimes?  How can you predict human behaviour when it is so random, and the acts so often disproportionate to their causes?  The Ringmaster is a great thriller, and I am a bit sad I have now caught up with the Sam Shephard series!

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

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