Welcome to the last of these four special editions of In The Spotlight. One of the real delights in reading books in competition for the Ngaio Marsh Awards is that many of them give the reader a very interesting look at life in modern New Zealand. Let’s focus on such a book today, and turn the spotlight on Jane Woodham’s Twister.
As the novel begins, a nasty ‘flu virus has been going the rounds of Dunedin, and taking its toll on everyone, including the police force. So, the local police are spread thin. Then, the weather turns against the city. Five days of rain soak things, followed by an unexpected twister. There’s considerable damage, and the already-decimated police force have even more on their hands. They’re hoping very much that things will calm down enough so that the city can be cleaned up and damage repaired. But that’s not to be.
Against this backdrop, the body of Tracey Wenlock, who’d been missing for two weeks at the time of the twister, is discovered in Ross Creek. What with the ‘flu epidemic and the damage from the storm, it falls to Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd to head up the investigation into what happened to Tracey. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have been first choice, as he is still coping with the fact that his daughter, Beth, went missing nine years earlier. He and his wife, Kate, have never even had the solace of burying her, since her body was never found.
Still, Judd does his job, and he and his team begin to ask questions about what happened to Tracey. They begin with her family and boyfriend, as you’d expect. But they also work to find any witnesses who might have seen something. There is the possibility that the same person who killed Tracy could have had something to do with Beth’s disappearance, and that’s not lost on Judd or on his boss. So, little by little, as the team works to solve Tracey’s case, they are also trying to find out if it might connect to Beth’s.
As in any case like this, there are leads that go nowhere, and of course, mistakes are made. But the team perseveres. In the meantime, Kate Judd has her own crisis. As her husband gets closer and closer to the truth about Tracey, she sees that she will have to tell him some secrets she’s been keeping. And one of them is related to Beth’s disappearance. In the end, the two plot strands of this story are drawn together, and Judd finds out the truth about both cases.
This story takes place mostly in Dunedin, and Woodham gives the reader a clear depiction of the city. It’s the kind of ‘small world’ place where people know each other and where gossip spreads. It’s also a thoroughly modern city that faces the sorts of challenges most cities do: development, rising real estate prices, and so on. Woodham also shares the diverse cultural makeup of the city. Readers who enjoy a strong sense of place in the novel will appreciate this.
Another element in the story is the police investigation. In that way, it’s got a real sense of the police procedural. We follow along as the police interview witnesses, review the evidence and so on. And all along, we see how torn Leo Judd is about it. He knows he needs to do his job; at the same time, though, he can’t be emotionally uninvolved in the case, since it could very well be linked to his daughter’s disappearance.
As the story goes on, we also learn the Judds’ backstories, and quite a lot about their characters. Readers who prefer stories to focus only on the sequences of plot will notice this. Readers who prefer character-driven novels will appreciate it. Not surprisingly, the Judds have been devastated by what happened to Beth, and it doesn’t make matters any easier that they’ve had no resolution or closure. Each has coped in a different way, but it’s taken an immense toll on their marriage. We see the events in the story from both Leo’s and Kate’s perspective (in past tense, third person), so we get a sense of what each has had to cope with, and how each sees the marriage and each other. It’s also worth noting that, although there is a focus on the Judds and their family, this isn’t a domestic noir story. Instead, it’s a portrait of a couple who have had to face every loving parent’s worst nightmare, and the impact that has on them.
The central plot is about the disappearance of two teenage girls, and Woodham provides background on each one. Since both have gone missing, we learn about them through what others say about them, and what the Judds remember of their daughter. I can say without spoiling the story that neither girl is mixed up with criminal gangs, etc. Instead, it’s a case of ‘normal’ (is there even such a thing?) teens going missing.
In that sense, the novel is very sad. We learn the truth, but that doesn’t make things all right again. There is a sense of resolution, but, in a very realistic way, that doesn’t mean everyone lives ‘happily ever after.’
Twister is the story of what happens when a loved family member goes missing, and the impact that has on everyone. It takes place in a distinctive Dunedin setting, and features very human character who are trying to cope with it all. But what’s your view? Have you read Twister? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 7 November/Tuesday, 8 November – Montana, 1948 – Larry Watson
Monday 14 November/Tuesday, 15 November – The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang
Monday, 21 November/Tuesday, 22 November – Rule 34 – Charles Stross