The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon @vandasymon @OrendaBooks @AnneCater

Source: Review copy
Publication: 18TH April from Orenda Books
PP: 320
ISBN-13: 978-1-912374-65-6

Death is stalking the South Island of New Zealand…

Marginalised by previous antics, Sam Shephard, is on the bottom rungof detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it.

She gets involved in her first homicide investigation, when auniversity student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens, and Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident.

There is a chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin, and a very strong possibility that the deaths are linked to a visiting circus…

Determined to find out who’s running the show, and to prove herself,Sam throws herself into an investigation that can have only one ending…

We first met Sam Shephard last year when, in Overkill, she was the sole Police Constable in Matuara and charged with investigating the death of her former lover’s wife.

Now though, she and her flatmate Maggie have moved to the somewhat larger city of Dunedin where Maggie is studying at University and Sam is in training to be a detective, though if her boss has any say in things, that’s going to be near impossible for her to achieve.

Sam is still as delightful as ever; headstrong, stubborn, a little bit driven by her heart, she is also a damned good investigator, with an instinctive, intuitive head for spotting patterns or realising when something just doesn’t add up.

But unlike her previous job, she can’t just go it alone in her investigations. She’s the most junior member of a team and her boss isn’t about to let her forget it. Fortunately she has an ally in Smithy, one of the detectives in the team and he helps her by including her in interviews and also by just being someone she can bounce ideas off.

When a young university student, Rose-Marie Bateman is found battered to death and floating in the river that runs through the Botanic Gardens, Sam finds herself irritated by being given only menial jobs to do and frustrated that she can’t play a full part in the investigation team.

In fact, when protestors turn up at the circus which has just arrived in town, Sam is taken off the case and sent to manage the protest.

Then she realises that a series of unsolved murders has a connection to the circus, and thus perhaps there is a connection between the circus and the Botanical Garden’s murder. If so, they have a serial killer in their midst and the chances are that person could be linked to the circus.

The Circus connection allows for some beautifully colourful characters to be served up as an antidote to the somewhat grey male police team and Sam, because of her vivid personality, is able to make connections there.  It also allows Vanda Symon to explore some of the prejudices and behaviours of those who have no time for travelling people, while she also notes the conditions of the caged animals in the circus.  These are not stereotypes, but rounded characters whose conversations are instructive and thoughtful.

But even as Sam is making good connections with the circus travellers, she is faced with an impossible decision and the reader is face to face with one of the most harrowing incidents in the book. This is a heart-breaking event that feels like a physical blow and also tests Sam’s mettle; telling us who Sam really is and how she behaves in a crisis.  And when she is hauled over the coals for it, her response had me cheering from the rooftops.

After all that, it’s good to know that Sam is prepared to ‘rattle her dags’ and get ready to go out and sink a few glasses of wine with Maggie. I felt a personal connection and you just know that Sam is someone you’d enjoy sharing a glass with, or fighting over the last of the toffee pops while revelling in the humour that is a feature of her thoughts and her repartee. (I’d love to see her act out a chicken dance).

We learn more about Sam’s character to from her relationships with her father and her somewhat sniffy, perpetually disappointed mother and we cheer for her when it seems that she is ready for a romantic relationship.

But Sam still retains that headstrong streak that makes her want to solve what she is working on and when she sees a connection between the first murder and another issue that has been plaguing her as part of a sub-plot, you just know she’s going to go barging in feet first to deliver a payoff that satisfies.

I really enjoyed this police procedural/murder/mystery which is chock full of twisty bits and misdirection, which on its own makes it well worth reading. But above all it is the vivid, authentic, unforced character of Sam herself who makes this book.  In the second Sam Shephard novel, we have learnt quite a bit more about Sam and strengthened and deepened our relationship with her. I can’t wait for the next one!

Verdict: a character driven police procedural with one of the best characters you’ll read this year.

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Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

The Sam Shephard series has climbed to number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and also been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. She currently lives in Dunedin, with her husband and two sons.

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I have been nominated (alongside many other excellent bloggers) for the Best Book Blog in the Annual Bloggers Bash Awards.If you would do so, you can vote for my blog here

Published by marypicken

Passionate book reader. Love all kind of books from 19th century novels to crime thrillers. My blog is predominantly crime, psychological thrillers and police procedurals with a good helping of literary fiction thrown in.

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