The doorbell rings. In the middle of a particularly tricky jigsaw you tut, tear yourself away, and look through the peephole in the door. On the other side is a man, cap pulled down so to obscure his face, dressed in the dark blue overalls of a tv repairman. But you haven’t got a tv; your passion is jigsaws. Who needs telly when the act of slotting those lugs into their correct piece is so thrilling. Something isn’t right here. The bell rings again making you jump, but you cover your mouth to stifle any call of surprise. The man’s body language belies his impatience, but he turns to leave. You realise that you have been holding your breath and you start to let it out, but he turns suddenly, thrusting a piece of paper through your letterbox. It falls to the floor, twisting as it does before landing face up. In crude, almost childlike writing you see the words. Upon the paper is……. a blurb:
“When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems.
Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon discovers the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast aside her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands.
To find the murderer … and clear her name.
A taut, atmospheric and page-turning thriller, Overkill marks the start of an unputdownable and unforgettable series from one of New Zealand’s finest crime writers.”
It’s a little known fact that when Mike Batt first wrote the theme tune to the Wombles, a children’s TV show of the 70’s, it originally started with “Underkill, Overkill wombling free, the Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we. Killing nasty people with the things that we find…” and so on. It was only after the BBC stepped in and had a quiet word with Mr. Batt, informing him that Wombles weren’t in fact murderous, crazed vigilantes stalking Wimbledon Common at night, but peaceful, loving, slightly eccentric creatures who cleaned up the Common after us humans, that he eventually changed the words to those which we know and love today (you can see and hear as to what I’m prattling on about here).
In Vanda Symon’s book Overkill, there are no Wombles. This isn’t because some say that Wombles are a fictitious figment of Elizabeth Beresford’s imagination, but probably because Wombles never actually made it to New Zealand, where Overkill is set. They are small, shy creatures and it’s doubtful that they would survive the long journey over there. Undoubtedly, as with rats and mice, one or two were accidentally transported over on ships in the past, possibly when a distracted Womble got a tad carried away cleaning up shit on the old ships and got stuck aboard, but it’s highly unlikely they would have survived the long and arduous journey. Sad times. For the benefits of this story this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as by nature Wombles are a tidy, conscientious creature and they are prone to clearing away any evidence of a crime before the police and forensic teams can get there. In that way, Wombles are a bloody nuisance to be honest, but they’re a protected species so you can’t do owt about it (it has been known for forensics teams to lay Womble traps, humane of course, and Womble deterrents around crime scenes to deter their strong desires to collect stuff and therefore destroy evidence, but the RSPCW – Royal Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty to Wombles, not actually a ‘Royal’ society, they have no official charter; it just makes them sound more official and therefore taken seriously – stepped in and banned them from doing so. They claim that Wombles suffered in being restrained from what comes naturally to them, but the jury is still out on that one.)
I must say, Overkill doesn’t suffer from the lack of Wombles. Instead, what we have is an excellent small town murder mystery, the first in a series featuring our intrepid heroine, police woman Sam Shephard. Sam is a lone police officer in the teeny, tiny, we-know-what-you’re-doing-and-we’re-going-to-tell-everyone-about-it town of Mataura, New Zealand. That’s it, down there:
In Overkill, Vanda, or rather Sam, describes Mataura as:
“….quintessential small-town New Zealand, although if I was being honest, it was a slightly shabbier and more run-down version of it. Like most towns, it struggled to provide employment and ways to entice the young folk to stay. How could it compete with the excitement of the city? It had a smattering of pubs, stores – mostly empty – and churches: the main ingredients for life in the sticks, although the pubs saw a lot more patronage than the churches.”
It’s probably fair to say that not much of note happens in Mataura: people go to work, people come home from work. People go shopping, people come back from shopping. People eat, people don’t eat. People talk to each other, people talk about each other. People get murdered in their own home in front of their young child, people, er, people, well, people don’t get murdered in their own home in front of their young child? Unfortunately for one unlucky woman this is exactly what happens. This is no spoiler btw. It’s set out from the very beginning. Overkill begins thusly:
“The day it was ordained that Gabriella Knowes would die there were no harbingers, omens or owls’ calls. No tolling of bells. With the unquestioning courtesy of the well brought up, she invited Death in. Death politely showed his identification and explained that there had been a telecommunication problem in the area. He then requested Gaby check if her landline had a dial tone.”
It’s a deliciously dark start to the book; believe me, the rest of the prologue doesn’t get any lighter 😉 Of course I’m not going to say anything further except that this tragic event falls into the inbox of our intrepid heroine, and so it is and thus it was and was it ever thus that Sam Shephard finds herself thrust into a murder investigation that not only threatens the peace and stability of small town Mataura, but also threatens Sam’s future and her fledgling career in the police.
Oooh, have I piqued your interest yet? What, are you still disgruntled at the lack of Wombles? Jesus, get over the sodding Wombles. I wish I’d never brought the little buggers up now. *rolls eyes*
Gabriella’s death is initially put down to suicide, but for Sam (and *whispers* for us in the know *conspiratorial wink*), things just don’t add up, which is great as this would be a very short and dull novel if the Higher Ups had got their way and told Sam to bugger off and investigate the Case of The Missing Apple or some such.
There’s a slight complication though as Gabriella is/was the wife of Sam’s ex, Lockie Knowes, and someone she still in love with. Avoiding your ex can be a right bastard in a place like Mataura; the curse of the small town strikes again. Mind you, living in a small town also has its advantages as nosey, busy bodies such as Dora McGann ([she]…could finally be something other than a right royal pain in the arse. A town gossip of great renown, I often had the pleasure of her voice on the phone as she informed me of some piece of information that had come her way and demanded my immediate and undivided attention. Well, that’s the way she saw it, anyway.), come in handy when Sam starts looking into Gabriella’s death more closely and small, but ultimately important, details start to emerge. So it’s not all bad 😉
Sam Shephard is an extremely likeable character. Told in the first person. she’s driven and intelligent, with an ambition to become a detective – which she can never accomplish in Mataura – her inner voice is realistic and believable. She’s also fallible in her eagerness, something that comes back to bite in her law-abiding bottom big time during her investigations and threatens her dreams. She lives with her best friend Maggie, a laboratory technician at the large meat-processing plant in the middle of town. Together they chew the fat, get drunk and do all the things best friends do together, like, you know, nearly getting killed and shit. Oops, slight spoiler there, sorry *evil laugh* 😉
I have to make a special mention here to the nearby town of Gore. Where? It is the bigger town up from Mataura, and where the special investigation team comes from once things kick off. Have a look HERE and HERE for some deets and shizz. But why the special mention I hear you ask? Well, Beardy Blog fact fans, Gore is my surname, hashtagtruestory. It was a little odd to see it cropping up in Overkill every now and then, I must say. I should make some attempt to visit there one day. I expect a red carpet and full Maori welcome 🙂
Spooky coincidences aside, it is this real world setting that really helps Vanda’s story come to life. As you have seen, both Mataura and Gore are real places, not the oft made-up locations of similar books. For me this a quality that is also shared with Ragnar Jonasson’s wonderful Dark Iceland (Ari Thór) series. Ragnar’s books are also set in a small, isolated real town where the quiet and normality is disturbed by tragedy – in this case Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. Both authors use their respective settings to full effect, exploring their people and attitudes, giving life to their stories. Oooh, imagine a crossover! Ari Thór and Sam Shephard together at last. Yeah boi! (Karen, get on it! 😉 )
Anyway, I digress as usual. One of the things that I enjoy with authors using real world locations is that you can bring them up on Google Maps and using street view you can explore and see exactly where these events take place. Have a good old snoop around. It gives Overkill an intimate, almost personal, feel.
Vanda’s characters inhabiting Mataura feel real too: Sam; Maggie; Lockie; Lockie’s best mate Cole; Leonore, Gaby’s mum; creepy Dr. Tony Walden, to name just a few, they all have a reality to them that belies their fiction.
I feel that I’ve overused the word ‘real’ here now. For real. Let’s wrap up….
Overkill is a tightly plotted, character driven slice of small town life, observing the effects that a truly heartbreaking tragedy can have on a small, tight knit community. Following Sole Police Officer Sam Shephard as she struggles to be taken seriously when she realises that there is more to the tragedy than it appears on the surface, battling with her ongoing love for her ex, and to clear her name in the process after some accidental boo-boos during her investigation. Overkill really hits the spot for those looking for a tense crime drama with a strong, likeable, believable and sympathetic female protagonist. There are three other Sam Shephard novels to sink your teeth into following on from Overkill, and I will most definitely be returning to New Zealand to see what happens to Sam next.
Where to buy: Amazon UK
Vanda’s website: http://vandasymon.com/
My biggest thanks to Karen Sullivan (@orendabooks) for my proof of Overkill, and to Vanda and Anne Cater (@annecater) for having me on the tour. Check out the poster below for all of the other awesome bloggers and content on the tour. If you don’t then I suggest that you don’t open the door to, and let in, any telecommunications types for a while. *cough* as you were. 😉
About the author:
Vanda Symon is the best-selling author of four Detective Sam Shephard crime fiction novels, published in New Zealand, including Overkill (Penguin, 2007), The Ringmaster (Penguin, 2008), Containment (Penguin, 2009), Bound (Penguin, 2011), and the stand-alone psychological thriller, The Faceless (Penguin, 2012). She is a three-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel. Her books have also been published in Germany.
Vanda is the producer and host of Write On, a monthly radio show on matters literary on Otago Access Radio, and she also reviews books for National Radio. She is very involved in the New Zealand writing community, having been chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and is currently the Chair of Copyright Licensing New Zealand. Vanda also has participated in celebrity debates, acted as speaker, reader or chair in literary events and festivals in New Zealand and Australia, and toured with The New Zealand Book Council’s Words on Wheels.
Vanda has a professional background as a pharmacist and has recently completed a PhD in science communication, examining the communication of science through crime fiction.