Sandi Wallace – Black Cloud

Next Chapter Publishing, internationally, 2021

This is the fourth in a series with protagonists Georgie Harvey, journalist, and John Franklin, cop, in this case working more separately than together to solve a set of linked crimes in rural Victoria. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first three, as this book is perfectly comprehensible as a stand-alone.

Barbie talks to Sandi Wallace about Black Cloud

There are references to previous cases and earlier traumas, but none is essential to the flow of this story. (You’ll want to whip out and buy the others once you’ve read this one though.)

A young family perishes, and police and another community worker are injured in an explosion and subsequent fire. A man drowns in a dam. Stock and other farm items are disappearing. Dodgy goods with fatal potential are being touted and sold in the pub. How are these things connected, are they connected?

While the police community is reeling from its losses, Georgie is determined to investigate the connections, write a front-page worthy story and claw back some sense of justice for the innocent.

Meanwhile John Franklin wrestles with guilt and grief over the fate of his injured colleagues, seemingly unable to think logically or act according to procedure. Others of his colleagues find in these events a catalyst for retirement or for rethinking their jobs. Grappling with the inevitable crime investigation hierarchy is a challenge for some – there’s a sense that they are not being kept in the loop on their own patch. Emotions run high and the effects flow into personal lives.

In setting this story in rural, though not remote, Victoria, Sandi Wallace draws attention to the plight of small communities, farmers and landholders in difficult times. There is a strong sense of the way place shapes us, nurtures us and challenges us.

The community is close-knit, some determined not to say or do anything that might unfairly impact on a neighbour, some desperate for truth. The way that a rural police force operates, the daily difficulties of understaffing and the like, is also an important strand. It’s sympathetically painted.

The author writes with an immediate and beguiling urgency that captures the reader. We are equally invested in Georgie’s safety and professional ambition, often willing her not to put herself in the path of obvious danger and brooding threat.

We find ourselves feeling her frustration when Franklin persistently shuts down communication – and it’s not just because there are police procedural lines that can’t be crossed. He’s not coping. Sandi Wallace paints a stark and believable picture of post traumatic stress behaviour, something that is surely part of the life of law enforcement officers worldwide.

There is a practised strength in Sandi Wallace’s writing. She deftly conjures the major and minor characters of this story; she builds and builds the tension of uncertainty and waiting, of prodding and pulling back, of inaction and sudden bursts of fraught action. She is astute in her observations of relationships whether they be intergenerational, professional or personal. She knows how to get our attention and to hold it.

Black Cloud has received glowing praise from best-selling crime writer Chris Hammer, who describes the book as ‘a beautifully written police procedural’ which ‘brilliantly captures the impact of small-town tragedy’. I can but endorse his comments. I am much inclined to seek out the back catalogue and await the next with eager anticipation.

Thank you to Next Chapter for my review copy and to Sandi for the richness of our conversation about this work and many things about life and crime fiction.