Written by James Delargy — Books with numbers as a title do well on this site – 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough and Steve Cavanagh’s Thirteen both earned five star reviews. Now it’s time to add 55 into that equation and see what the result is.
This debut by James Delargy also ticks another box on the current crime fiction wish list – it is set is Australia and, like Jane Harper’s The Dry and the recently reviewed Scrublands by Chris Hammer, we’re immediately thrown into the remoter regions of the country, where it’s hot, hot, HOT.
Welcome to Wilbrook, a sleepy little town that sits right on the edge of a huge tract of wilderness in Western Australia. Nothing much happens here, and local lad Chandler Jenkins has a pretty stress-free time as the area’s police sergeant. Until one scorcher of a day, when a bedraggled, injured stranger appears at the front desk of Wilbrook Police Station. What he has to tell sets everyone back on their heels.
The man is called Gabriel, and he says he was picked up by a stranger, drugged and driven to a cabin in the mountains, where he was chained up. Gabriel’s captor was Heath, who claimed to be a serial killer. Chillingly, Gabriel was to be his 55th victim.
A manhunt begins – no easy task in an area which is largely unexplored and inhospitable. Then another bedraggled, injured stranger appears at the front desk of Wilbrook Police Station. His name is Heath, he says he was picked up by a stranger called Gabriel, drugged and driven to a cabin in the mountains, where he was chained up. Gabriel claimed to be a serial killer. Heath was to be his 55th victim.
Who, if anyone, is telling the truth?
Not content with one intriguing storyline, the author throws in another for good measure. Back in the day, when Chandler was starting his police career he had a good friend who was right there with him. Rookies Mitch and Chandler were involved in a long and fruitless search for a missing man. It was a difficult case and one that would irrevocably divide the two friends, who eventually went their separate ways. Now Mitch is back. He has risen through the ranks in a big city force and seems to delight in lording it over Chandler. There’s a back story here that is revealed gradually; in the meantime, the pair butt heads on many occasions.
Whichever strand the story may be following, eternally bubbling away in the background is that cloying sense of claustrophobia that plays so well in the small towns of crime fiction land. Chandler has never wanted to leave Wilbrook, while to Mitch the place is a backwater and he’s counting down the days until he can wave it goodbye once more, departing without any regret or even a second glance. So there’s a general feeling of unease. And that heat – humid and uncomfortable and ever-present.
There are a lot of balls in the air in this book and Delargy handles them like a skilled performer. The central Gabriel/Heath storyline is played out like a fish on a line, keeping you hooked and forever internally debating which one might be telling the truth. It’s tough to call, believe me.
This is a most assured debut and I’m already looking forward to James Delargy’s next book. I mentioned Sarah Pinborough earlier and a more recent novel of hers, Behind Her Eyes, prompted a Twitter hashtag campaign – #WTFthatending. I’d like to propose that it be resurrected for 55. Grab a copy, read it and see if you agree…
Find out a little about the origins of Australian crime writing in our guide to the work of June Wright. Or why not try some New Zealand crime fiction? This feature by Craig Sisterson is a great starting point.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars