55: deceit and dishonesty

55Ambiguous characters, devious cliffhangers and sneaky-cheat disclosures are all the rage in crime fiction right now. It’s almost as if readers have dared authors to deceive them, to invent improbable scenarios and craft them into something convincingly credible. This debut novel does something similar but different. It hooks us with a superb set-up… and then delivers an entirely different story.

The blurb is brilliant. Two battered survivors crawl into town after enduring assault and exposure in the blistering heat of the Australian outback. Beaten and bruised, they both claim to be the kidnapped victim and say the other fella is a psycho maniac. They talk of shallow graves, chains and manacles, and of being victim ‘55’. Has a serial killer really murdered 54 people? And which of the two is telling the truth?

Gripped by this inventive situation, I plunged straight in. But 55 suddenly steers away from this thread to focus on a lifelong rivalry between the two investigating officers, Chandler and Mitchell. Chandler stayed a small-town cop and is bringing up his two kids as a single parent, while the ambitious and obnoxious Mitchell chose a career in the big city. The two survivors – intended victim and calculating killer – are infuriatingly absent from most of the proceedings. And the PR blurb, seen here, goes beyond being misleading…

55b

So while I’d expected an intriguing intellectual duel between them, much of 55 focuses instead on an old case which originally divided Chandler and Mitchell, long in their past. The story of this book is the story of their embittered relationship and the ramifications of that failed investigation on current events. It’s about small-town life and the pain of parenthood, and looks deeply at the consequences of long-term loss. A valid narrative, to be sure, but not the one I thought I was reading!

Author James Delargy writes with snappy panache with the story presented in short segments, easy to read rapidly. His version of a dry and dusty, scrubland community has the authentic sense of a place anchored in reality. I was less convinced by the plot convolutions, especially the whole numbers conceit.

If, like me, you’re looking for hard-boiled ‘outback noir’ then you’re better off seeking out the razor-sharp, bitterly bleak books by Peter Temple – saturated in slang, written with searing literary style. But if you enjoy domestic dramas and unpredictable psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators, then 55 might have your number.

7/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
55 by James Delargy is available at Amazon

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