Written by Nathan Blackwell — New Zealand has offered some exciting avenues for crime fiction in recent years and their annual Ngaio Marsh Awards are fertile ground for atmospheric stories with formidable backdrops. The Sound of Her Voice is less preoccupied with setting but debut author Nathan Blackwell spent seven years as a detective in the Criminal Investigation Branch and the book goes large on a realistic depiction of police life. It’s a stylish and gritty police procedural with
Matt Buchanan is the tortured and flawed New Zealand detective faced with the case he can’t forget. As crime fiction goes this is all familar; so far, so genre. A prologue in 1995 opens on a dark wet night in Riverhead in Auckland. Buchanan is a rookie responding to the call as two colleagues have been gunned down. One survives but the other, Gabby, who went through training with him dies in his arms. We’re then cast forward to 2011 and Buchanan’s life as a detective.
We learn about his obsession with an old case: a young girl, Samantha Coates, who went missing in March 1999 and has never been found. He still meets the family and he keeps a candle burning for her. The early scenes tell us how it’s really done in the police. The detectives don’t go crashing through the doors first during raids and much of the police work is mundane with a systematic grinding down of leads. Buchanan deals with a young rape victim called Kelly and despite his professed awkwardness his compassion and empathy are clear. He does what we can for Kelly, leaves his phone number, promising he will always be available.
The important element here is that Buchanan is a good bloke, treating the victims with compassion and trying not to judge. He bitches about the court system, often feeling personally inadequate, but he still treats his snitch, Peter Childs, with decency. He’s involved when they pull out skeletal remains, minus head and hands, of a young woman from a mangrove swamp and then a year later he investigates the death of a child, Brianna, found half-buried on the dunes several kilometres north of the Muriwai Surf Club.
This novel is a slow burner, following Matt Buchanan’s career, and there is no real precipitating event. Yet the humanity of Buchanan and Blackwell’s attention to detail pulls you along. There’s even a slightly odd interlude of a few years mid-book when Buchanan leaves the force and takes up life as a flying instructor. Four years later, he gets lured back into the force and the story cranks up again.
The first part of the book is an enjoyable police procedural with a solid protagonist but the final half is more of a pacy thriller and the story surges. Ironically, given the overall realism, this marks the point where the action stretches credibility at points. Yet, taken as a whole this is an absorbing tale of a career, shot through with noirish moments, and we watch as the relentless exposure to violence grinds down Buchanan. The vignettes in the first half are all stitched back into the story with skill.
The setting does its job; it’s not spectacular and like many of the characters other than Buchanan it feels a little under-developed. Matt Buchanan is decent company and has a strong voice but there is no supporting cast. We follow as the job chews him up, his mental health gets damaged, and he succumbs to wild and violent maverick impulses. It feels bleakly realistic.
In The Sound of Her Voice Nathan Blackwell has written a thoroughly readable police procedural that is ambitious; it has a wide scope and it’s an intense ride. The crimes here are as serious as they come: rape, child sexual abuse, murder and corruption. They are portrayed unflinchingly and the human impact is well observed. As a slice of New Zealand crime fiction it’s first rate.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars