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darkhorseA classic of foreboding and suspense set in the Victorian High Country.

There are a few authors out there who write books that just about guarantee that sleep will be lost, and lights will be left on for quite some time after finishing them, and as  with Brown’s previous work, Dark Horse has this effect. The reader knows that not everything will be as it appears. The worry sets in early and doesn’t let up.

It’s Christmas morning on the edge of Victoria’s High Country and Sarah Barnard is saddling her black mare, Tansy, heading for the bush, escaping a broken marriage, a bankrupted trail-riding business, and avoiding time with her family. She obviously doesn’t want to be around other people when she feels as if everything wrong in the world is happening to her.

Anybody who has spent any time with horses will, by the bottom of page one, be feeling more than a little discomforted – many of us have come close to a good head-butting, or actually experienced one, and we know how that feels:

Tansy had baulked at the foot of the loading ramp, swung up her head in protest, and the broad bone of her nose had connected with Sarah’s jaw, chin and mouth. It could have been worse, if the impact had been a centimetre higher.

When Sarah and Tansy are trapped by a flash flood, the lone bushwalker who appears outside Hangman’s Hut seems to be charming, capable and trustworthy. But is his story true? Who is he really? Who, for that matter is Sarah? And most worryingly of all for animal lovers, is there a threat to that beautiful, beautiful mare?

This is a particularly powerful thriller. From the first, the reader is wrong-footed, although it’s hard to know that’s what is actually going on. Bad things continue to happen, and even when something positive does occur, you know that the lull in the tension is just there to make you feel better about the fact that more bad things are just over that next ridge.

Added to the constant vague sense of physical disquiet, there’s also the double-guessing game that readers have to play. Who is the ‘bad guy’ here? Is there a lurking presence somewhere on the mountain, just outside the firelight? Is it the attractive, physical, injured bushwalker Heath? Is it only as simple as that the horse is going to be the perpetrator of something awful, rather than a victim? For that matter, what is the actual problem here – are Sarah/Heath/Tansy/all of the above actually under threat, stuck as they are on the top of a mountain, trapped by the weather, landslides and flooding water? And is Sarah as real and as solid as she seems to be? She is, after all, the eyes and voice of the story and could be an unreliable narrator, even if it feels increasingly unlikely …

Dark Horse is an absolute classic case of foreboding that’s built into a story that seems to be heading in one direction until it jumps out from behind a rock and mugs the reader with a twist that you shouldn’t see coming. To be fair, though, this is a novel by Honey Brown so you know you’re going to get mugged, you just don’t know where, how or by whom.

Honey Brown Dark Horse, Michael Joseph, 2013, PB, 280pp, $29.95

Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.

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