Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Have you read Vanda Symon?

For the third in this blog's regular series (every Wednesday) of author introductions on Kiwi crime, mystery, and thriller writers, we now take a look at the work of Vanda Symon.

Born in Tauranga, New Zealand in 1969, Symon grew up there and in Hawke’s Bay (the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island). She calls herself “the product of a life-long love affair with books”, having developed a strong love of reading at an early age. She has said her first books obsession was with the Berenstain Bears series of children’s books – before she moved on to “camping out at the library” and a steady diet of Rosemary Sutcliffe and TH White. The latter’s THE SWORD IN THE STONE led her to a love of all things Camelot, a fascination with medieval times, and even choosing fencing as her sport.

After high school, Symon headed to Dunedin (the major city in the bottom half of New Zealand’s South Island) to study pharmacy at the University of Otago – later returning to Hawke’s Bay to practice as a pharmacist in the community and at the local hospice until she started a family in 2000. It was while she was bringing up her children that she began writing, working on what would later become her debut novel, OVERKILL, which introduced sassy young policewoman Sam Shephard to the crime fiction world.

OVERKILL kicks off with a haymaker of a prologue, where an intruder forces a young mother to submit to her own death in order to save her nearby baby. Soon after, sole-charge rural cop Sam Shephard finds herself co-ordinating the search for the missing mother, her ex-lover’s wife. Once the body is found, she is left tidying up then investigating the looks-like-suicide drowning. The case is complicated by stroppy Sam’s frequent clashes with authority, her unclear relationship with her ex - the widower, and the public finger of blame beginning to creep her way when suicide turns to murder.

When asked during the 2007 New Zealand Book Month how she came up with the emotionally-charged, extreme prologue, Symon said: “The prologue for Overkill was born purely out of a mother’s paranoia when sleep deprived at ungodly hours of the morning when junior had fallen asleep in a milk-coma and I was still eyes wide open thinking up every possible dreadful thing that could ever happen to me and my precious little bundle... By the way, I still cry at the end of the prologue, and I wrote the flaming thing.”

You can read more from that NZ Book Month interview at:
Symon and her family moved back to Dunedin before OVERKILL was published by Penguin in 2007, and she now continues to live there with her husband and two young sons. In amongst the writing and being a “domestic goddess”, Symon also produces and hosts a monthly books-focused radio show 'Write On' on Toroa Radio (It airs live on the second Wednesday of each month on Hills AM Community Radio 1575 kHz from noon to 1:00pm), serves as the Chair of the Otago Southland Branch of the NZ Society of Authors, and does monthly book reviews for Dunedin Diary on Channel 9 Television.

Last year, Symon told the Otago Daily Times that: “OVERKILL was 4 ½ years from go to whoa. This was very part time fitting in snippets of writing around babies and the associated demands of feeding, play, dealing with messes of all origins, household running and eyeballs-falling-out-of-head tiredness.”
You can read more from that interview, which coincided with the release of her Dunedin-set sequel, THE RINGMASTER, at:

Once she got the debut under her belt however, Symon found her writing stride and (relatively) quickly completed the next two instalments in the Sam Shephard series, THE RINGMASTER (Penguin, 2008) and CONTAINMENT (to be released this November). She is currently working on the fourth in the series, BOUND. OVERKILL was also translated for the German market (EIN HARMLOSER MORD) in October 2008.

In THE RINGMASTER, our heroine Sam Shephard has moved to biggish-city Dunedin from small-town Mataura; bridges burnt. On the bottom rung of the detective training ladder, Sam is sidelined from a murder investigation by her grudge-holding boss. Assigned to peacemaking duties between the visiting circus and animal rights protestors, Sam uncovers a link between the circus and deaths spread throughout the South Island, sparking serial killer fears.

In CONTAINMENT, Sam is training as a detective at Dunedin Central when she’s assigned to investigate what seems to be a routine diving accident off the Otago coast. But the forensics reveal that the man didn’t die from drowning; and that the body was stuffed in its wetsuit after death. Perhaps there is a connection with another case Sam is involved with – citizens of Dunedin pillaging the wreckage of a container ship at the entrance to Otago Harbour?

Symon’s books have received good reviews, and it will be interesting to watch her audience grow as the series continues, and more crime fiction fans are exposed to her writing. Bestselling international author Kate Mosse has said: “Vanda Symon's fast paced crime novels are as good as anything the US has to offer - a sassy heroine, fabulous sense of place, and rip roaring stories with a twist. Perfect curl-up on the sofa reading.”

In a review I wrote earlier this year, I said: “Symon is part of a new wave of Kiwi crime writers, and THE RINGMASTER shows that we should feel no cultural cringe when devouring local stories in this most thrilling of genres. Of the many admirable aspects of Symon’s storytelling, chief is her creation of Sam Shephard, a protagonist you want to follow; headstrong, passionate, and flawed… Symon’s talent for creating well-rounded characters permeates throughout… Another impressive facet; from the opening Botanic Gardens murder, to Highlanders games, and student life, Symon brings Dunedin alive.”

Like most Kiwi crime authors, Symon has not yet received the attention she deserves for her writing – however as she continues what has quickly become a very enjoyable series, I am sure more and more readers will come to discover and appreciate her books, and young detective Sam Shephard.

Have you read Vanda Symon? What do you think of her crime novels? What do you think of her recurring heroine Sam Shephard? Please share your thoughts.You can read more about Vanda Symon (including reviews etc) at her website: or at: She also has a regularly-updated blog at:


  1. I've only read the first of these novels but I did enjoy it - especially the depiction of the relatively small and remote location which was well done. Sam reminded me of one of my favourite crime fighting women - Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. I like the idea of Sam moving to a larger town in the second book (which is on my teetering TBR pile).

  2. I too enjoyed the authentic depiction of the NZ rural small-town in OVERKILL. The great thing is that Vanda captures some of the essence of Dunedin, a much larger city (though still not a big city on a global scale), equally as well in THE RINGMASTER. I'm very much looking forward to CONTAINMENT.

  3. Yes. I've read Vanda and I am lucky enough to have met her, although I confess that being introduced as Paul Cleave's life partner can't be the best introduction I could have hoped for.

    Am looking forward to Containment and getting my copies of her books signed when she is next in ChCh.

  4. I would love to read Vanda and other NZ crime/mystery/thriller authors. Unfortunately, only one of Vanda's books is available on Amazon and it's in German. The Book Depository has two titles but they've been out of stock for ages. I wish the publishers would make a stab at testing the market elsewhere or at least consider Kindle versions.

  5. Ms Symon's books are terrific, I've enjoyed them both and look forward to the upcoming one.

    Mack, you can get her books in the US by ordering from here:

  6. Thanks Patrick, the prices aren't bad.

  7. Mack - I'm thinking of running a competition in the coming week or two where people can win a copy of a recent-ish NZ crime fiction book (e.g. see titles list on sidebar) of their choice, that I will buy and send to them anywhere in the world (at no cost to the winner) - so keep an eye out for that. You could choose one of Vanda's books if you won.

  8. Be warned! I read Vanda's two books prior to visiting Dunedin earlier this year and I was so absorbed by them that as I wandered round I found my self thinking "I wonder which part of the Leith the body was found?" and "where in the Botanical Gardens did the attack happen?" it totally changed my outlook! Wonderful stories, I'm hanging out for the new release.

  9. Of course! I loved both books and I'm dying to read 'Containment'. Sam Shephard is smart and feisty, and at times a little stroppy but I love that, and I love how she defies authority, takes control and solves the murder. Thanks for your post, and great blog by the way. :)

  10. Really enjoyed Vanda's first four books.