Matthew Spencer – Black River

Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2022
Cover design by Luke Causby, Blue Cork
Cover photographs Luke Causby and Adobe Stock

Matthew Spencer’s debut novel has been aptly described by others more eminent than I in the following terms: ‘a meticulous thriller’ (Sarah Bailey), ‘sharply plotted and relentlessly paced’ (Michael Robotham) and ‘Black River hooked me and wouldn’t let me go (Tim Ayliffe).

Barbie speaks to Matthew Spence about Black River

I can but agree – the book is skilfully written and cleverly structured with a cast of characters sufficient to keep the crime fiction habitué well served for suspects and with a fluid pace that makes it highly readable.

The story deals with dark matter – that of serial killing and the psychopathic criminal – and we prepare ourselves for that from the beginning with the discovery of a murder victim found on the grounds of a prestigious boys’ boarding school bordered by the Parramatta River.

We immediately become involved with the police investigation into what has become an ongoing case under the command of task force Satyr. This is the third apparent victim. The investigation is led by an old school Detective Inspector, Steve O’Neil and his offsider Detective Sergeant Rose Riley.

Additional team members include Constable Priya Patel and Forensic Psychiatrist Wayne Farquhar, whose analysis of the nature and predictable behaviour of the psychopath informs the investigative process.

But as we might expect from a former journalist author, the other investigating partner is a newspaper journalist, Adam Bowman, whose career has stalled. His association with and knowledge of the school campus as a resident when a child offers him the opportunity to get the ‘it’ crime scene shot, when others can’t get past the police cordon onto the grounds. His position covering the story is thus established despite its not being his round.

It is the batting back and forth of these two styles of investigation that forms the backbone of the plot, However, there is an understory about Bowman’s past which is tangentially related to the crime story. I’m deliberately avoiding too much reference to the plot  – I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Thematically, the author broaches notions of privilege and entitlement, abusive behaviour, the long tendrils of childhood and other secrets, guilt, dissembling, deviance and professional hazards. The plot takes in organised crime, illicit affairs, bullying behaviours, spheres of political influence and the pressure exerted on law-keepers by the powerful with axes to grind and interests to protect.

The pursuit of justice for the victims of crime is ever present both for the police and for Adam Bowman. And as readers we are always right on board with this. There’s plenty about which to be outraged.

Drawing on his research into and reading of true crime, consultations with police and his professional experience in the world of journalism, the author has created a work of great credibility. We are seeing ever more journalists turn to crime writing and it must be said that they make a mighty fine job of it.

There’s something about being taught to write clearly and with immediacy, about honed skills of attention to fact and detail and the knowledge of how to order ideas on a page. Then there’s the career discipline of working with editors – good editing is an essential and it’s magic in this work.

Black River is a complex work; like all our best crime fiction it insists that we look closely at contemporary society. There are layers of story here to interest us the plot lines and the characters are a fascinating bunch.

The deft handling of language elevates the book beyond genre stereotypes. The fact that we have resolution is also immensely satisfying – we surely need it in this story. I do hope there is more work for this O’Neil-Riley-Patel-Farquhar-Bowman team –  a series is what we’d like from this author.

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my review copy and to Matthew for talking crime, journalism and the writing craft with me.