Containment (2009) is Vanda Symon’s third crime fiction novel, which features Sam Shephard, a young sole-charge female police constable in Mataura as the main character. Penguin New Zealand decided they wanted a series of crime fiction novels about Sam Shephard in a new series of crime novels set in New Zealand after Overkill‘s success at publication in 2007, so Vanda Symon followed up with The Ringmaster in 2008, Containment in 2009, and Bound in 2011.
A commonly made criticism of crime fiction is that murders take place in relatively small areas that you would normally expect to experience a violent crime, say, once every five years. You could make this argument in relation to murders set in sleepy villages, universities, multi-national corporations and so on. Although as crime fiction readers, we are usually happy to put aside such practical considerations it is nice to read a book where the focus of a crime scene seems absolutely right for the small community. Containment by Vanda Symon begins with a shipload of containers being washed up on a beach in Dunedin, New Zealand. Locals scramble to plunder what goods are available, but this is no benign Whisky Galore plot. Instead, while trying to contain the volume of the thefts, Detective Constable Sam Shepherd is knocked unconscious by one of the looters.
After a dramatic start, the book then slows the pace as Sam’s injuries are revealed and she saves the life of her assailant when he stops breathing in the ambulance. We get to see the tensions in Sam’s personal life, including her relationship with Paul her police officer boyfriend, who drops the bombshell that he intends to transfer to Dunedin. Sam has a wonderful narrative voice, pure New Zealand with many of the characteristics we would expect of a female police officer, without the clichés. The narrative picks up pace again when the body of a diver is pulled from the sea. The description of the decaying body is stomach-churningly gruesome and links start to appear with the contents of the containers that washed up on the beach.
This is an excellent read from a new author. It isn’t just the setting that made the book stand out. Symon is wonderful at characterisation, and the supporting characters spring to life from the page, including the stoned Jase, the disabled Spaz (there is an explanation for his non-pc moniker in the book) and the violent Felix Ford. In the end, there does turn out to be murder and mayhem in this small community but the scale of it, even as it ratchets up, feels absolutely right. (Adapted from Goodreads and Crimewatch)