I met New Zealand author Chris Stuart at the Theakston Crime Writing Festival. We were introduced by crime fiction guru (and big promotor of antipodean crime fiction) Craig Sisterson (pic of we three below).
Chris, he told me, had won New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel for her debut, For Reasons of their Own in 2021. We hung out while at the festival and she handed me a copy of her second book, The Glasgow Smile. Very weirdly we had similar backgrounds, as we’d both worked in international aid and development overseas and – at different times – worked with the same Australian project management company in the Pacific. Small world. We also both seemed to be wearing bright clothing, so we stood out in the dull England drizzle.
For Reasons of their Own
by Chris Stuart
Published by Original Sin Press
Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural
Robbie Gray, a talented but troubled Detective Inspector stationed in Melbourne, who has fallen foul of police bureaucracy, is called to a investigate a dead body found in a rural wetland swamp. Under-resourced, with a corpse that cannot be identified and no apparent motive for the murder, she fails to make headway.
The Federal Police take over the investigation and ASIO becomes involved, focusing on a terrorism angle. Convinced they are misinterpreting the evidence, or worse, DI Gray begins her own investigation assisted by a young Aboriginal policeman.
These two outsiders discover an entirely different motive to that which the federal authorities have confirmed, one that involves international borders, corruption in humanitarian aid organisations, and political manipulation.
What DI Gray and her team uncover, challenges their understanding of power and powerlessness and questions their interpretation of whether murder, under certain circumstances, may be justified.
When I settled down to read The Glasgow Smile I realised it was a sequel to For Reasons of their Own, so decided to start with that. Thus was I introduced to NZ-born Detective Inspector Roberta (Robbie) Gray – an ex nurse-turned cop. I liked Robbie, including the fact that her personal life is a bit of a mess. I also appreciated that Stuart gives us quite complex characters as her support cast. We learn that Robbie tends to work with two partners – Sam and Michael, the former usually razor sharp but currently distracted, and the latter wonderfully methodical but prone to prejudice. And there’s Robbie’s boss, Superintendent Ted Hobbs who I found to be hard to read. In fact the inconsistency in his behaviour was probably a little distracting. On one hand he calls Robbie ‘girlie’ in a condescending, almost threatening kind of way and reminds her that she’s recently been under investigation for misconduct (over missing drugs); but on the other hand trusts her to run a parallel investigation even though he’s nearing retirement and could suffer consequences.
Although this is Stuart’s readers first meeting with these characters, Robbie and her colleagues come to us fully-formed and I liked that they felt comfortable… as if they’ve been around for a while and I think the realism of these characters is a real strength. There’s a newcomer however, and we’re introduced to Mac – who’s recently transferred over from the Northern Territory. I very much liked him so hope he remains a fixture in future novels.
There’s a really strong sense of place here. The book’s set in Melbourne and those more familiar with the city and its landscape will certainly enjoy Stuart’s descriptive prose.
Stuart opens this with Robbie on an undercover gig so it’s kinda obvious it’ll have some relevance to what comes next. Which also means it’s quite easy for readers to guess who the victim is, though it takes Robbie and her team longer. They’re finally making headway here when Robbie’s caught up in a terror attack and out of action for a while. By the time she’s back her case has been taken over by the ‘Feds’ and it seems they’re making a lot of assumptions about the victim’s link to the attack. Things get a smidge complicated here with political motivation driving the ASIO investigation and the government using the attack to get a seat on the Security Council.
I know a bit about the UN and its systems from a previous life, so I’m not sure if others will appreciate the complexity. I very much liked though that Stuart pulls things back in and gets back to basics. She’s sure the killing is personally motivated rather than related to terrorism though it’s obvious the victim had his secrets. Again Stuart dips into her background and takes readers into the world of international development and refugee camps.
The strength of this novel for me is Stuart’s characters who felt very real and relatable. There’s a lot of reference to drugs going missing on a past case for Robbie and her team which sparked an internal investigation. She was cleared but still ostracised as a result. I suspect that Stuart will pick up that backstory in a future novel and looking forward to that.
Work, her professional life, was the one thing she had control over, the only thing she was good at. And now, the one way in which she measured her worth as a human being was in tatters. p 176*
For Reasons of their Own by Chris Stuart was published by Original Sin Press.
* Been there, done that. #hardrelate