Friday, October 30, 2009

Vanda Symon: The Ringmaster

Sometimes cloning sounds like a good idea. This past week I could have used a clone or two. It's been a week since my last entry here because I've been reading and watching films. If I read or watch films, then I can't put an entry here at the same time. Of course the opposite is also true.

Following are a few comments about one of the books I've read.

Vanda Symon
The Ringmaster
police procedural
Dunedin, New Zealand

I think Vanda Symon is the first crime writer from New Zealand that I've read, or at least the first one who has set her novels in New Zealand. I read many of Ngaio Marsh's mysteries years ago, but most were set in England. I think a few were set in New Zealand, but I don't remember anything about them. By the way, a number of Marsh's "Inspector Alleyn" stories have appeared on BBC and are now available on DVD.

Symon's novels feature Sam Shepherd, a young and inexperienced police officer, who has several handicaps, of which one of the most serious ones is her mouth.

The Ringmaster is the second novel in the series. The first was Overkill and the third is Containment, which is expected to come out in December 2009. In the first novel, Shepherd was the constable for a small town and actually was the only police presence there. Therefore, she was on her own most of the time. Now, she has gotten her promotion to Detective Constable and has been transferred to Dunedin for training--her dream come true. Except, that as in the real world, it hasn't quite turned out that way. There are a few downsides to her "idyllic" situation, some of which she brings with her and some belong to her new situation.

One is the usual problem of being the new kid on the block, which is usually a problem for anybody, but even more so for Shepherd. She is a detective constable, so she's no longer a constable, and it also means she's not exactly a detective either. So, neither group really sees her as one of their own. Secondly, she got her promotion ahead of others who had seniority over her, which leads to the usual gossip about a female who gets promoted quickly--"Who's she sleeping with?"

Another work problem is her senior officer Detective Inspector Greg Johns. I haven't read the first novel in the series, but Symon does provide us with a few clues, especially about Shepherd's previous encounter with Johns. It seems that Shepherd told Johns a few months ago that "he could go rot in hell" and that "he was a hack with a paper degree who couldn't solve a mystery if it was tattooed across his forehead." The clincher was probably when she "insulted his favourite poncy briefcase." I've never been a police officer, but I don't think this is a good way for the lowest ranking officer to address a senior officer.

Along with her work related problems are a few personal issues. One is her mother from hell, who wields guilt as skillfully as any brain surgeon, or perhaps even more skillfully. Then add in a member of her family with a serious medical problem. She also has a suitor, an unwelcome one, she insists. He's the Don Juan of the police force, and he's been pursuing her since they first met. Shepherd's best friend has a solution to the problem: give him what he wants--go to bed with him and he'll disappear the next morning and never bother her again. Will she or won't she?

The novel opens with Shepherd assigned to a job normally given to a constable--that of dealing with animal rights activists demonstrating at a circus. One has donned a gorilla suit and has locked himself in a cage. Shepherd comes up with a funny solution to the problem.

However, a more serious crime is the focus of the novel--a young woman is murdered. Johns, her boss, is stuck with her on his team and decides to make her life as miserable as possible. She gets all the tedious jobs he can find. What he finds most irritating is that she does the work and discovers some important clues along the way. One seems to be some sort of connection with that circus. As to be expected, there are a number of twists and turns and false leads along the way and a most unusual series of murders.

Overall Rating: Detective Constable Sam Shepherd makes the novel work, and I definitely intend to read the first one in the series, and the third when it appears in December.

For those interested in crime fiction from New Zealand, I can highly recommend the following blog--Crimewatch. Simply go to my blog list and click on the name on the list on the right side of the screen.

Vanda Symon's website


  1. Well, Fred, you've complicated my life again since I have another author to add to my "must read" stack of books. Damn, the stack never seems to get smaller!

  2. I know the problem. I had this delusional idea that because I'm retired my stack of books to be read would get shorter.

    What was I on when I got that idea?