Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. This week, we continue our special look at the finalists for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel. Today, let’s turn the spotlight on Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice.
Detective Matt Buchanan has been on the police force in Auckland for a long time, and he’s seen some truly terrible things. He’s tried to do the right thing as a copper, but he’s gotten increasingly bitter, especially as he sees that victims don’t always get justice, and ‘bad guys’ get away with their crimes.
The one case that keeps spurring him on is the 1999 disappearance of Samantha Coates. She went missing while walking home from school one day, and she hasn’t been seen since. Not even a body has been found. Whenever he gets the opportunity, Buchanan follows up any leads he can, and he meets occasionally with Samantha’s parents. But this case hasn’t been solved, and it continues to haunt him.
In the meantime, there are other cases Buchanan works. There’s a hit-and-run death, a child’s body discovered, the murder of a colleague, and more. Then, some fresh leads come up in the Coates case, and Buchanan feels he has no choice but to follow up on them. Little by little, he finds that this case is much bigger, and leads to much darker places, than he’d imagined. And it’s just possible that several of his investigations may be linked.
As Buchanan gets closer and closer to the truth, he has to make some decisions about how far he’ll go – how dark he’ll get – to get to the truth. And when he does discover the truth, he has to find a way to, as the saying goes, make it back.
This is a police procedural. In fact, Blackwell is a former police detective, so there’s a heavy emphasis on police work and the police perspective. On an interesting note, some of Blackwell’s work was undercover, so that name is a pseudonym. Blackwell uses several police acronyms in the novel and provides a glossary of them at the beginning. All of this gives the reader a real-life look at what it’s like to be an Auckland police officer. There’s even a scene where Buchanan goes to court in connection with one of his cases and has some choice thoughts about the court system that sets guilty people free and adds to the trauma that victims have to face. It’s an interesting look at the police point of view in these cases.
Police see some of the worst things that people can do to each other, and Blackwell doesn’t hold back here. It’s a dark novel, even harrowing in places, and it’s not surprising that Buchanan has his own share of trauma trying to deal with it all. There is violence in the novel, and not all of it is ‘off stage.’ Readers who prefer to avoid brutal violence in their crime fiction will want to know this. Likewise, there’s a great deal of profanity – some of it ugly profanity.
The story is told from Buchanan’s perspective (first person, past tense). So, we learn a great deal about him. He suffers from PTSD because of the job, but he functions, mostly by putting what he sees into what he calls a box – and then leaving the box alone. Buchanan’s PTSD actually causes him to leave the force more than once. Yet, he keeps coming back to the Coates case, which won’t let him go. He’s raising a teenage daughter, Hailey, on his own since his wife died. He can’t always be there for her, but they do have a caring relationship, and she keeps Buchanan in touch with what it is to be a human being.
The timeline of the novel spans the years of Buchanan’s career, occasionally going back and forth among the major incidents that prove to be linked. Readers who prefer their stories told in sequential order will notice this. That said, the chapters are clearly marked with dates, so it’s not difficult to follow the story.
The various threads of the story come together slowly and aren’t always apparently linked at first. But they lead to a very dark place. In that sense, this novel has elements of the noir novel. There isn’t a happy ending, in which ‘bad guys get theirs,’ and ‘good guys’ are vindicated. We do learn the truth, but that doesn’t make things all right again. And it all leaves its mark on Buchanan.
The story takes place mostly in greater Auckland, and Blackwell places the reader there. The scenery, street names, use of language, and other details are distinctively New Zealand. So is the way the police go about their jobs, so readers get a close look at how things work in that country.
The Sound of Her Voice is a dark, gritty, uncompromising look at life as a New Zealand police detective. It links together several terrible crimes, and shows their impact on the police who investigate them, and on the families who must live with their results. And it features a cop who’s seen too much, and somehow has to cope with it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Sound of Her Voice? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 8 October/Tuesday, 9 October – The Hidden Room – Stella Duffy
Monday, 15 October/Tuesday, 16 October – A Killer Harvest – Paul Cleave
Monday, 22 October/Tuesday, 23 October – Tess – Kirsten McDougall