Book review: Blood River by Tony Cavanaugh

Sunday, April 21, 2019 Permalink

Queensland’s capital Brisbane is well known for the river that ‘divides’ the city. It provides some lovely vantage points and scenery, but is also a bit of a nightmare for those having to commute ‘across’ one of the few bridges from the south to the city centre / north each day. And then of course there are the ‘once in a one hundred year’ floods. Which… in recent times have been proved statisticians and weather-predicting peeps quite wrong!

Book review: Blood River by Tony CavanaughBlood River
by Tony Cavanaugh
Published by Hachette Australia
on April 23rd 2019
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural
ISBN: 9780733640742
Pages: 416

Brisbane 1999. It's hot. Stormy. Dangerous. The waters of the Brisbane River are rising. The rains won't stop. People's nerves are on edge. And then...A body is found. And then another.And another.A string of seemingly ritualized but gruesome murders. All the victims are men. Affluent. Guys with nice houses, wives and kids at private schools. All have had their throats cut. Tabloid headlines shout, THE VAMPIRE KILLER STRIKES AGAIN!

Detective Sergeant Lara Ocean knows the look. The 'my-life-will-never-be-the-same-again look'. She's seen it too many times on too many faces. Telling a wife her husband won't be coming home. Ever again. Telling her the brutal way he was murdered. That's a look you never get used to.

Telling a mother you need her daughter to come to the station for questioning. That's another look she doesn't want to see again.

And looking into the eyes of a killer, yet doubting you've got it right. That's the worst look of all - the one you see in the mirror. Get it right, you're a hero and the city is a safer place. Get it wrong and you destroy a life. And a killer remains free. Twenty years down the track, Lara Ocean will know the truth.

Brisbanites or those who know the city will smile at the local nuances offered up in the book. Everything from the Ekka to the Breakfast (Brekkie) Creek Hotel, the jacaranda trees, Wivenhoe dam and – of course its familiar suburbs which are effortlessly woven through Cavanaugh’s narrative. As is the Brisbane river. The array of early deaths take place near the river. And there seems to be a pattern of sorts.

Cavanaugh moves us between a few narrators: teenager Jen in 1999, police officer Lara Ocean (who we hear from in first person) and the killer, also speaking in first person. Some of Lara’s chapters are also introduced, as if via a narrator before getting to her, in a move akin to scene-setting I guess. I didn’t dislike it but I noticed it so it probably jolted me out of the story on a couple of occasions.

Lara’s a likeable character and Cavanaugh shares a bit about her history: her mother, her culture, her rebellious teenage years and how she eventually turned herself around.

I had always seen myself as a balloon in the sky, held to the ground by two strings. One was dad’s – my Anglo half – and the other was my mum’s, my Chinese half. With his death, one of the strings came loose and I was adrift. Maybe I put too much stock in my kid’s simple image of identity, but at the time that’s how it felt…

I guess in the wake of our collective trauma we all, individually clung to something in order to survive: mum reached out to become more and more Chinese, and my brother embraced the notion of making a lot of money to make him secure and me, I wallowed in the notion of being a rebel. p 42

It’s Lara’s past that gives her insight into the murders and allows her to sympathise with Jen more than her older partner, Billy – an old school cop who hasn’t always played by the rules but gets results.

I would have liked to have spent a bit more time with Jen and have gotten to know her better. We meet her as the book opens and she’s feeling guilty but also confused. She’s been acting out we learn, but in some fairly harmless ways, rebelling against her wealthy parents and private school. It’s hard to imagine she’s capable of the deaths of several men, but readers are reminded of the famous ‘vampire’ killing involving some young women in Brisbane a decade earlier.

Jen’s rebellious goth tendencies are a good match for some celtic carvings on the body… markings Lara’s familiar with from her own chequered history. And of course there’s the public pressure to catch the ‘slayer’.

It’s hard not to talk about the present without making it obvious WHO is ultimately convicted for the killings and as we’re in the head of the killer, we’re privy to a lot more than Lara and her partner Billy.

Cavanaugh throws in some other suspects and motives, both ‘then’ and ‘now’ but the ultimate baddie was a bit of a surprise and definitely not one I would have guessed. It seemed very unlikely and a little unfair to we readers as I don’t think there was really any indication of their guilt or predilection. (Although having said that I guess that’s the way real life works doesn’t it?!)

This book is probably as much about Lara and her reflections on her history and memories reignited by the murders than the investigation itself. Pacing-wise I would have liked the latter part of the book (the last quarter or third set in 2019) given a little more time than the background to the investigation in the past; or perhaps more attention given to young Jen and her possible motives at the time of the investigation.

Cavanaugh doesn’t emphasise it or play on it but there’s a strong sense of injustice and melancholy at play in the book. I felt quite petulant at times, pondering on the unfairness of it all.

I very much enjoyed the sense of time and place Cavanaugh offers in this novel; its quintessentially Brisbane setting and changes afoot in the late 1990s. Mobile phones were still kinda suspicious, computers unfamiliar to many and then there were the Y2K (end of the world) fears.

Interestingly (or not) I was living in East Timor at the time of this book so could not recall if Brisbane struggled with severe flooding in November – December 1999. I have been in Brisbane for subsequent floods however, including the flood in 2011 which resulted in the loss of lives.

The only weird thing for me is that – other than some scene setting – the crimes actually had little to do with the weather and the river, unless I missed something obvious. There’s Celtic mythology surrounding elements of the murders but I was expecting the river to have more pivotal or poignant role, or at least, for the flooding itself to have resulted in the recovery of bodies.

Cavanugh has also written for film and television and I think this is reflected in his ability to place we readers into the narrative as it unfolds. I’ve only read one or two of Cavanaugh’s Darian Richards series and wouldn’t have minded more featuring Lara Ocean but…. I suspect that’s unlikely.

Blood River by Tony Cavanaugh will be published in Australia by Hachette and available from 23 April 2019.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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