Published by Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2023
Cover design and illustrations by Luke Causby/Blue Cork
Jack Heath could easily have stepped sideways into romance fiction with this one. All the elements are there – the intense attention on four partnered relationships, tensions and affairs, desire and power plays, veiled conversations and secrets, sex and intrigue.
Perversely though, the prologue flight scene with its reference to the diminishing numbers of a mountain house party from six to three quickly assures us that this is a dark tale.
Then, Chapter One introduces Senior Constable Kiara Lui dealing with a busted up hit and run victim and we’re solidly in the crime world, despite the wry domestic aside of a riverside picnic with her partner Elise aborted by the necessity to deal with spurting blood and death.
The action hurtles along to another crime scene and then the author drops us into the scenario and only very ekeingly feeds us all the details of the three couples who go for a mountain retreat weekend together which ends in a blood bath.
Most of them were high school friends – Clementine and Cole, Oscar and Isla and the alpha male Dominic, married to the outsider, stand-up comedian (yes!) Felicity. Talk about a perfect vehicle for some gallows humour, shamelessly and deftly employed, one must say, along with the author’s Hitchcock moment in a passing reference to his earlier ‘cannibal’ works.
Each couple has its issues – Clem and Cole are desperate to conceive, Oscar and Isla have a child who seems to be problematic for the relationship, Dominic and Felicity clearly need excitement not entirely provided by their marriage. And then there is the couple of the police officer Kiara and Elise, a foil to the others but not without their challenges.
A weekend house-party for the high school chums soon goes awry, as it appears deals about couple swapping have been done without everyone’s agreement. Murder and mayhem ensue but interestingly not until the second half of the book.
Jack Heath cunningly keeps us on the hook for a good part of the story as we wonder exactly what has happened at the house, who everyone actually is (he toys with us over the name of the survivor for example) and what their simmering issues are.
He cleverly uses the Christie-esque technique of introducing a large cast of characters in quite a lot of detail so that we theoretically have all we need to solve the crime. Aficionados of the genre will know this isn’t strictly true though, and there are plenty of surprises and smart twists till the very end.
This book is particularly interesting for its focus on aspects parenthood and the pressures it can put on couples. Even the minor pairing of the Basking father and son plays out this theme. Its forensic examination of marriage is also intriguing and perhaps now more common again in contemporary crime fiction, as it was in the golden era when money and passion often competed as prime motives for crime.
Like many of her fictional predecessors, Senior Constable Kiara Lui is something of an outsider – for her it’s both racism and homophobia that make her into an étranger in her own country.
It’s impossible to talk too much about specifics of plot with this one without spoiling it entirely. Suffice it to say that the solution is reeled out slowly and systematically. The author is always in control of both his plot and his reader.
We do find out what has happened just a bit ahead of Kiara, but then the full disclosure is needed in the confrontation with the perpetrator to make sense of it – more ekeing out. It’s breath-holding drama to the last, in virtuosic crime style.
That the story nevertheless ends with romance is further evidence of Jack Heath’s masterly control of audience – and perhaps his inherent romanticism. We now await the next Kiara Lui case with great anticipation.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Jack for such a good fun conversation about the book and its genesis.