Black River by Matthew Spencer opens with a murderous bang. Is it just me or is it kinda confronting when we’re introduced to a character on commencement of a book only to have them killed a la Drew Barrymore, Scream-like, upon meeting them? Although Spencer doesn’t have us ‘bond’ with the victim, it reminded me of Linwood Barclay’s Take Your Breath Away which I read earlier this year and opened by putting readers in the point-of-view of someone who was almost immediately killed. Which helped me deduce that THEY were not, in fact, going to be the lead protagonist. 💡Black River
by Matthew Spencer
Published by Allen & Unwin AU
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural
Adam Bowman, a battling journalist who grew up as the son of a teacher at Prince Albert College, might be the only person who can uncover the links between the school murder and the 'Blue Moon Killer'. But he will have to go into the darkest places of his childhood to piece together the clues.
Detective Sergeant Rose Riley, meanwhile, is part of the taskforce desperately trying to find the killer before he strikes again.
Adam Bowman's excavation of his past might turn out to be Rose's biggest trump card or it may bring the whole investigation crashing down, and put her own life in danger.
I very much liked Adam, who tells us he’s pretty much wallowing in mediocrity as a journalist on the nightshift in a diminishing newsroom. His involvement in the story is coincidental (he’d gone to the school the latest victim was found – albeit thirty years earlier) but it’s his ‘smarts’ and ability to join the dots that get him the story. And ensure he’s of use to the police so a two-way bartering system is established.
Spencer draws Adam’s character well. He endured childhood trauma through the death of his brother and disintegration of his family, but it wasn’t life-shattering to the extent he’d broken completely. I perhaps would have liked a little bit more of backstory about the preceding couple of decades of his life. We learn he travelled to the UK and Africa and did some freelancing but little of his personal life.
It was a little the same with DS Riley and her boss DCI Steve O’Neil. Spencer plants us in Rose’s thoughts and also gives us a complex multidimensional character with whom to engage but I still wanted more. I did wonder if perhaps it’s intended this will be the first in a series, so we’ll get more backstory and past snippets as time goes on.
As for the case(s) on offer, there’s a question from the outset as to whether the latest killing is the work of the Blue Moon Killer. There are certainly similarities, but also some variations and Riley in particular wonders if they’re making a mistake by assuming it to be their serial killer.
Spencer gives us a lot of detail that I appreciated – from the forensics from the victim/s to the psychological analysis provided by the police psychiatrist, including the fact it was likely the murderer graduated from ‘prowling and peeping’. There’s some complexity in the plot as well, with other secrets being revealed to keep readers guessing how they might play a role in the murders. Pacing-wise I wondered whether the final climax is a bit rushed – after all we’re almost through the book when we’re offered resolution, but I decided I liked the way we’d been lulled into making an assumption as to what we’d know or not know by the end… only to be offered a last-minute heart-starter. (Or stopper!)
As an aside, I did feel we jumped suddenly into O’Neil’s head a couple of times unexpectedly and it felt a little disruptive but didn’t distract from the plot itself. There’s a strong sense of place here but the area (Parramatta River / Gladesville) is unfamiliar to me. It felt quite rural and I wondered if the area (in fact) is. I’m sure those who know it would relate quite well to the setting.
This is yet another great debut from an Aussie writer. (They keep coming in 2022!)
Black River by Matthew Spencer was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.