Friday, August 28, 2020


THE WILD CARD by Renée (The Cuba Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

"Sure thirty years is a long time. Sure the case was closed. Well, never really a case as such. Fifteen-year-old brown girl tops herself, who cares? Turn the page. That bloody notebook, thought Club. God knows what was in it. Who knew that little bitch could even write?"

Ruby Palmer has been dealt a rough hand. She was left in a kete at the back door of the Porohiwi Home for Children when she was a baby, and then at seven she discovered that Betty – who stopped the bad stuff happening to Ruby at the Home – had drowned.

Now in her thirties, Ruby needs to find out what really happened to her and Betty at the Home – and her only lead is a notebook that uses the symbols in playing cards to tell a story she doesn’t fully understand. But her investigations set off a chain reaction: a man in a balaclava attacks her and there are break-ins at her apartment and the local theatre where she’s acting in The Importance of Being Earnest. As Ruby goes deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Home, she starts to find answers to questions she hadn’t dared ask. 

The author of THE WILD CARD, Renée, is a much loved and prolific writer of novels, memoir, poetry and plays in her native New Zealand. She won the NZ Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2018, following which she wrote this, her first crime novel, at the age of 90.

Tagged by the author as "cosy noir", it comes as no surprise that Renée would have set her first crime novel partially in the world of theatre, given her experience of that environment, and the rest of the premise is strikingly done. THE WILD CARD blends that theatrical background into a story about the abuse that children suffered in State-run homes for many decades in New Zealand. Beautifully written, with a light, almost visual touch, this exploration is all the more telling.

There is a big cast of character introduced here so you'll need to concentrate as Ruby Palmer, now in her thirties, has decided that the time has come to find out what happened to her best friend Betty at the home they were living in as young children. Abandoned as a baby at the back door of the Porohiwi Home for Children, she was seven before Betty came into her life. Betty was the only person that stood up for Ruby, the only person that showed her decency and compassion, and then she drowned. The only lead Ruby has is a notebook filled with symbols in playing card that she must decipher to learn the truth. Along the way Ruby wants to find out her own personal history - who she is, and hopefully even why she was left.

At the same time she's finally got a break in her acting career having been cast as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Unfortunately her quest for the truth leaves her threatened, assaulted, having to rely on the support of friends, and struggling with the demands of the part she's so desperate to keep.

The characterisations drawn by Renée in this book are just wonderful, and the writing style makes it engaging and enjoyable, whilst never losing sight of the quest that Ruby is on. The theatre setting is depicted with considerable authority, and affection, with an absolutely outstanding ending as a bonus. All in all THE WILD CARD is a wonderful book with so much going for it.

As a bonus I've had the chance to do a bit of reading up on Renée since her entry in the Ngaio Marsh awards and she is one hell of a force of nature by the sounds of it. You can get a real sense of the woman behind the writing with her Lockdown Letters Series here, There's even an article there about the writing of a Locked Room crime novel. She is reportedly working on her own second crime novel and I for one am standing by.

THE WILD CARD has been shortlisted for the 2020 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Karen Chisholm is one of Australia's leading crime reviewers. She created Aust Crime Fiction in 2006, a terrific resource - please check it out. Karen also reviews for Newtown Review of Books, and is a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best NovelShe kindly shares her reviews of crime and thriller novels written by New Zealanders on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment