For women crime readers ‘of a certain age’, Melbourne debut novelist Jenny Spence has nailed her demographic with an intelligent female protagonist who loves literature and is old enough to have a daughter in her early 20s. Elly Cartwright works for an IT outsource company for whom she edits and rewrites technical jargon into plain English – at least I think that’s what she does. But no mind, she’s technologically savvy and the company is suitably multicultural with attractive young tech-heads who will act as her sidekicks and watch her back.
She thinks her job innocuous and her life mundane until one night walking home she is followed by a car and shot at outside her front gate. Tragically, her neighbour Mabel is also at the gate and is killed instead of her. Enter gorgeous, smart Senior Sergeant Lewis as her (married and therefore unattainable) love interest, who gets her reference to Occam’s Razor – she’s that kind of woman – and the plot thickens quickly with the murder of Carlos, a freelance computer whiz definitely ‘on the spectrum’, with whom Elly works closely. It seems their work has led Elly to know something she shouldn’t, but they work for so many companies that she has no idea what it is she knows and why she shouldn’t know it.
Spence ratchets up the tension as Elly, unable to escape her pursuers in Melbourne, flees to the safety of a work contract in Sydney. But she’s still in danger and no closer to understanding why. A sub-plot kicks in as she realises that the environmental report to the government on which she is working has been tampered with – providing a satisfying range of possibilities as to why she is being targeted. Is it something to do with a proposed mining development that will damage a water catchment, and the mysterious disappearance of an engineer? Or does it involve the Eastern Europeans Carlos had hired to computer hack?
Unlike some recent crime novels in which, disappointingly, the women protagonists are yet again (in this day and age!) saved by a bloke, it is Elly who gets to the bottom of things, who drives the narrative and outwits the killer in an exciting, action-packed ending set in the Victorian bush she grew up in and knows like the back of her hand. Ironically it is old mine-shafts that prove his undoing. To say any more would be a spoiler.
No Safe Place is a convincing set-up for a very 21st-century crime series with a believable and likeable character in Elly, and a beautifully drawn, noir-ish Melbourne:
The street is deserted apart from a young Vietnamese couple holding hands as they hurry towards the station. There’s a cold mist floating around the street lights. I’m about to go when something catches my eye. Was that a movement? I peer towards a narrow alley opposite. It’s dark. There’s room for someone to stand there, unnoticed, and watch this building.
Jenny Spence can write. Character, setting and plot are seamlessly intertwined with enough humour and literary allusions – Elly is trying to get through Wolf Hall throughout – to keep us women of a certain age (and hopefully many others) looking forward to more in this series.
Jenny Spence No Safe Place Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 328pp $29.99
Morgan Smith has been a scriptwriter and editor, a columnist and book reviewer. She is currently a bookseller.
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