Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This will be the first of five special editions of this feature. For each of the next several weeks, I’ll be spotlighting one of the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best First Novel. I was privileged to be on the panel this year, and had a great experience. So, what better than to share it with you? We’ll start with this year’s winner, Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons.
Thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell is at a crossroads in his life. A car crash left him without the use of his legs, and his marriage to his wife, Anna, has ended. He wants to start over, so he buys a small cottage in the tiny town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island.
‘…almost as close to the bottom of the world as you can get without actually moving to Antarctica.’
He settles in and reluctantly arranges to meet with his assigned therapist, Betty Crowe. He also begins to meet some of the other local residents, and is surprised to find that the word is already out about him. It’s that sort of a small town.
When Bell discovers a tabby cat living in the cottage, he decides to try to track down the cottage’s former owner, Emily Cotter, to see if the cat belongs to her. That’s how he learns about a double tragedy that took place at the cottage. In 1988, Emily’s daughter, Alice, disappeared. Brothers Darrell, Sean, and Archie Zoyl, who own land nearby, were suspected of killing the girl, and there was evidence against them. But it wasn’t enough to convict them, although they were arrested three times. A year later, Emily’s husband, James, also disappeared.
Finn’s curious about what happened, so he begins to read up on the disappearances. He starts to ask questions, too. In fact, his determination to find out what happened to the Cotters begins to feed his openness to starting his life again. So does his work with Betty. But it seems very few people are willing or able to give him any answers, although it’s hard to believe that no-one would know anything.
Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and it’s soon clear that someone does not want Finn to find out the truth about that old case. And, the more he looks into it, the more certain he is that something truly ugly is going on in the town. It’s not long before Finn’s not even sure who can be trusted and who can’t. And the closer he gets to the answers he wants, the more real danger there is for him.
This novel is a thriller. So, there are narrow escapes, people who seem trustworthy but aren’t, and real danger for Finn. The pace is consistent with that sort of novel, too. And there are plot twists and nasty characters.
At the same time, the novel tells Finn’s personal story (from his point of view), so in that sense, it is more reflective than many thrillers are. Finn’s rather an unlikely hero. He’s had a serious drinking problem (hence his divorce and the car accident), but has stopped drinking. Now, he’s trying to figure everything out. He’s prickly, sometimes aloof, and quite cynical; he himself admits that he’s not a happy person, and not a nice one. At the same time, he slowly learns to conquer the depression that led to his other problems. It’s not an easy process, a matter of two steps forward and one back, as the saying goes. For Finn, finding out what happened to the Cotters is a form of redemption.
And it’s an ugly truth, too. The secrets of Riverton go back for a long time, and involve some horrible things. This isn’t one of those light ‘murder in a small town’ sorts of mysteries. There’s sadness and darkness here, and finding out the truth doesn’t really make everything all right again. That said, though, Finn does slowly find himself healing and beginning to fit in to his new life.
Another element in this story is its setting. Riverton is a small town with a long history (it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest towns), and a motley crew of residents. Everyone knows everyone, and there are a lot of kinship ties within the town. For instance, Patricia, the local hair stylist, is a cousin of Tai Rangi, who introduces Finn to Murderball – wheelchair rugby. There are other networks, too, based on the Māori concept of family, which is quite different to what Finn’s known. The town can feel isolated, though. In fact, Finn describes it as ‘the middle of nowhere.’ And that isolation adds to the suspense of the novel.
The story is told in two timelines, both mostly using the present tense. In one timeline, the present, Finn is at a very dangerous cliff, at risk of falling off it. In the other timeline, five months previously, Finn tells the story of how he ended up in Riverton, why and how he got interested in the Cotter case, and what led to the scene at the cliff. The timelines come together towards the end of the book, as one timeline catches up to the other and we learn the truth about the town, its history, and its secrets. Readers who prefer only one timeline will notice this. So will readers who prefer their stories not be told in the present tense.
Dead Lemons is the story of a man who comes to a small town to start over, and finds himself drawn into the dark secrets of the town’s past. It features some ugly crimes, and shows how people can still be affected by trauma, even years after a tragedy. It’s set in a distinctly New Zealand town, and offers a look at life there, and at the slow process of healing. But what’s your view? Have you read Dead Lemons? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger
Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt
Monday, 11 December/Tuesday, 12 December – The Frozen Shroud – Gordon Ell