Tuesday, June 18, 2019


THE NANCYS by RWR McDonald (Allen & Unwin 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Tippy Chan is eleven and lives in a small town in a very quiet part of the world - the place her Uncle Pike escaped from the first chance he got as a teenager. Now Pike is back with his new boyfriend Devon to look after Tippy while her mum's on a cruise.

Tippy is in love with her uncle's old Nancy Drew books, especially the early ones where Nancy was sixteen and did whatever she wanted. She wants to be Nancy and is desperate to solve a real mystery. When her teacher's body is found beside Riverstone's only traffic light, Tippy's moment has arrived. She and her minders form The Nancys, a secret amateur detective club. 

But what starts as a bonding and sightseeing adventure quickly morphs into something far more dangerous. A wrongful arrest, a close call with the murderer, and an intervention from Tippy's mum all conspire against The Nancys. But regardless of their own safety, and despite the constant distraction of questionable fashion choices in the town that style forgot, The Nancys know only they can stop the killer from striking again.

Well, this was something different. I don't know if I've grinned as much reading a crime novel for quite a long time. There's such a lovely sense of exuberance to Melbourne-based Kiwi author RWR McDonald's debut mystery, which is set in a fictional small town in the deep south of New Zealand.

Delightful, charming, heartfelt, exuberant; they're not usually the words that come top of mind when musing on a crime novel, but they absolutely fit for THE NANCYS, which has an adolescent heroine but is very much an adult mystery novel (not a young adult or juvenile mystery).

I can certainly see why the then-unpublished manuscript was highly commended in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards (a pipeline that has highlighted the likes of THE DRY by Jane Harper, THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion, and THE NOWHERE CHILD by Christian White).

There's just something, well, je ne sais quoi, about THE NANCYS that makes it quite different to much of the great rural and small-town crime writing coming out of Australia and New Zealand in recent years. While it has some of the quirky local characters and secrets-behind-closed-doors you'd expect with 'rural noir', there's a different energy and tone, delightfully so.

At its heart, and the book has a big one, THE NANCYS centres on the misadventures of an unlikely investigating trio and the colourful South Otago townsfolk they encounter. along the way.

Tippy Chan is an eleven-year-old Riverstone local delighted by a visit from her beloved Uncle Pike, a Sydney hairdresser who could body double for Santa Claus. Pike has returned to the riverside town he fled years before - "the town that style forgot", as the blurb aptly describes - with his fashionista boyfriend Devon in tow, to look after Tippy while her mother goes on a cruise.

It's been a tough time for the Chan family, with Tippy's father passing away in the past year and even more stress heaped on her mother, Pike's sister, who could do with a good break away. Tippy loves her uncle’s old Nancy Drew books, and when her best friend falls off a bridge and then her teacher’s body is found near the town's only traffic light, the trio see a chance to solve a mystery for real.

At the same time they're juggling other local adventures, including a surprising makeover of a glum teenage neighbour for a local show, and Pike dealing with his past history in the town.

Overall THE NANCYS is a real delight, a charming mystery that is much more than charm, packed with lovably unruly characters and chaotic events and perfectly seasoned with humour and heart. First-time novelist McDonald has opened his account with a real belter, a unique and enthralling tale.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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