Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Like The Nancys, the first in this crime series, Nancy Business delivers dark crimes in a small rural setting – murder, corruption and character assassination for a start.
But, and here’s the crucial thing, the story is driven by such clever humour and such likeable unlikely heroes that we have trouble feeling too appalled by the darkness.
We are instead swept along on a rollicking tide of derring-do, domesticity and the complex mess of family relationships by our crime fighting trio, whose entity is inspired by American early twentieth century crime heroine Nancy Drew.
R.W.R. (Rob) McDonald’s deft use of voice with his 12 year-old heroine Tippy Chan allows us to clearly see the foibles of the adult world, even when she cannot entirely grasp what is happening. It is her working out of the mysteries that enables the reader to do so while feeling a touch of adult omniscience and superiority. Her adult team and the story’s setting also deliver a new perspective to the crime fighting world – Uncle Pike and his boyfriend Devon, a gay couple in a post-homophobic world in small town south island New Zealand.
The story deals equally with the personal ups and downs of relationships, those of the main character and the rich assemblage of the secondary characters. Believable dialogue carries much of the rip-along action and succinctly provides explanations of plot intricacies.
Tippy Chan’s neighbourhood recalls a former time for many middle-aged readers, one where people knew each other’s business and popped by with cups of sugar and comfort for kids not their own. The warmth, complexity and importance of family and community are yet another aspect of this work that provide stark contrast to the black crimes being committed whilst also creating a rich landscape for the characters to inhabit. This also allows Tippy, though a pre-teen, to believably investigate crimes, meet up with adults crucial to her case work and to ask questions and express opinions which otherwise would be inappropriate for her age.
This is such deliciously clever writing – no wonder the author has already collected legions of fans. The marriage of laugh out loud humour and crime, and of domesticity and crime are definite winners for the reader. The myriad of social issues cruising just below the surface of the crime saga provide further intellectual meatiness, albeit so craftily covered in the froth of the surface.
The author’s astute observation of the pre-teen will strike a chord with parents and grandparents, but it is also an essential and skilfully wrought element of authenticity in this story-telling. Tippy’s fluctuating brashness and insecurity, overt confidence and under layers of self-doubt, daring and reluctance, silence and speaking her mind, childishness and grownup-ness are all so familiar to anyone whose life includes or has included the teenager.
Well beyond the Keystone cops pursuits of early depictions of police in film, the wild drive in the climax of this story for me typifies much of what is so enjoyable in this book. We never for a minute doubt its possibility nor do we fear too much the consequences. Our confidence in the powers of good and right are maintained despite the lurking evil. And that’s a joyous thing for a cosy crime reader. I look forward to book 3 and the resolution of outstanding questions of justice and truth.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for the review copy and Rob McDonald for the pleasure of a conversation about your work.