Wilbrook in Western Australia is a sleepy, remote town that sits on the edge of miles and miles of unexplored wilderness. It is home to Police Sergeant Chandler Jenkins, who is proud to run the town’s small police station, a place used to dealing with domestic disputes and noise complaints.
All that changes on a scorching day when an injured man stumbles into Chandler’s station. He’s covered in dried blood. His name is Gabriel. He tells Chandler what he remembers. He was drugged and driven to a cabin in the mountains and tied up in iron chains. The man who took him was called Heath. Heath told Gabriel he was going to be number 55. His 55th victim.
Heath is a serial killer.
As a manhunt is launched, a man who says he is Heath walks into the same station. He tells Chandler he was taken by a man named Gabriel. Gabriel told Heath he was going to be victim 55.
Gabriel is the serial killer.
Two suspects. Two identical stories. Which one is the truth?
There is a real slew of solid Australian crime writing at the moment from the likes of Jane Harper, Emma Viskic, Chris Hammer et al, and although not of Australian stock himself, James Delargy has produced a clever, disquieting, and altogether compelling thriller set in the remote western Australian outback, that holds more than one or two surprises of its own…
I think I can confidently guarantee that the very premise of this book, and the lengths that Delargy goes to in order to trick and wrong-foot his readers, will catch you out at regular intervals. With two men under suspicion of being a remorseless serial killer, and their individual stories of being captured and tortured by said serial killer, Delargy manages to keep the narrative tension spread over, for what is a crime thriller, a remarkable stretch of time. This is no mean feat as there is a relatively slim cast of characters, with only one real other story arc, the tension between the Police Sergeant Chandler Jenkins, and the team that come in to takeover the investigation, headed up by an unwelcome face from his past, Inspector Mitch Andrews. I absolutely loved the conundrums that the seeming innocence of Gabriel and Heath, the two accused men brought to bear on the story, leading me to constantly re-evaluate the evidence that Delargy lays before us, perplexing the reader as much as the investigative team. Delargy is a real tease, as he consistently exposes pseudo Jekyl and Hyde aspects to both these men’s characters, and just as you fixedly decide on one’s guilt and the other’s innocence, guess what, you’re wrong. There is a real controlled and supremely well-measured pace to the book, so that the slightly slower passages where the men are interrogated, threatened or cajoled into professing their guilt, is punctuated by not only the backstory of the build up of animosity between Chandler and Mitch, but sporadic moments of nerve shredding tension, as the police mine for some credible evidence to prove the guilt of either Gabriel or Heath. Or neither. Or both. Or somebody else entirely…
I liked the character of Chandler Jenkins enormously, with his integrity and seemingly natural fair-mindedness, which plays of beautifully against the power crazed narcissism of Mitch Andrews, former friend, now foe. The differences between the two men, which is brought to light as the sub-narrative of one of their earliest cases together plays out, makes for a rocky, testy and tension filled investigation, outside of their basic remit of bringing a killer to justice, and there’s some nice little twists and turns in their relationship along the way too. To be honest the other members of the investigation team didn’t make a significant impact on me, but with the book focussing so intently on the changing boundaries, and intensity of the exchanges between Chandler and Mitch, and their interactions Gabriel and Heath. There was more than enough angst, threat of violence and the whiff of testosterone to pretty much drown out the other characters, but not to any real detriment of the book overall.
Thinking about the characters further, I think there is a nice correlation between them, and the environment and location, the book is set in. Set in the bleak expanse of remote western Australia, there is an intense feeling that although the landscape is sprawling and open, the vastness and aridity of it can conceal so much. Two of the characters, seem to reflect the openness and raw beauty of this hostile landscape, whereas two others seem to reflect the opposite, with their characters being altogether more dark and volatile. Despite being set in this endlessly repeating landscape, there is a significant sense of claustrophobia to the book, and the local police station becomes a microcosm of energy and pent up tension, that works exceptionally well to unsettle the reader, and the ending? Well, far be it for me to spoil the ending, but I think the author deserves more than a smattering of applause for not going down a certain well-worn path in thriller finales- so thanks for that- and loved the ending. I thought, bar a small period of the book, where the story slowed down just a wee bit too much, 55 was an extremely cleverly plotted, well-paced, and consistently engaging thriller with some nifty tricks in the narrative, solid characterisation of the main players, and suffused with the claustrophobic heat and isolation of its Australian setting. A compelling debut, and a recommended read.
(With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the ARC)
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