The Floating Basin by Carolyn Hawes – 2016


The floating basinA man’s body is discovered in the floating basin; a murky tidal estuary on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Ru Clements, a local detective, investigates and discovers the sad secrets of the town he now calls home.

The floating basin is an absorbing portrait of a small New Zealand settlement, and like the paintings of one of the characters has “… a dreaming sense of something half civilised and half nature.”  The constant references to ambient smells add to the visual descriptions evoking the human smells of “… boiled vegetables and oily stewy meat” and the stink of the damp rotting of buildings on the edge of estuaries, of swamps, of civilisation.  With Elsie the giant eel always slithering under the surface …

All the characters in this novel are complex, rounded and a mystery to each other.  Ru, who “preferred life on the ground floor, closer to crime and where he felt he had more control over things” is not so much estranged from his wife Coe as inhabiting a parallel world.  They both ignore their teen-aged daughter, Meaghan, her taking second place to the guilt and regret over a lost son.  And this non-prioritisation of females is at the heart of the mystery of The floating basin.

The victim found in the water, Richard Irwin, is a relative new-comer to the area, having bought a retirement property with which he subsequently became very unhappy.  Initially the owner of the sub-divided farm, Lewis Scott, falls under suspicion, but Irwin lived in the area many years ago, working for a local accountancy firm, and it emerges that there are several people who would wish him harm.

Ru is assisted by local colleagues and some brought in from outside, and many want the case wrapped up quickly.  But as various characters come under suspicion, the focus always slips to someone else.  And stories emerge of complaints made but ignored, of parents minimising daughter’s concerns and the fact of very few people being willing to take a woman’s words seriously.

The descriptions of stalking are very scary and the effect of male decisions on female lives ring true.  Chris Munro, Jasmin Hornby, Dorothy Birtles, Zona the accountancy firm secretary – all affected, none listened to, as “no-one bothered with the complaints of young women”.  And the physical details are finely drawn – “It was the irony of it – in the face of major bleeding and death – a spot of blood from someone else’s pinpricked finger.”

The West Coast humour comes through in the novel: one character getting his nickname because “I won the whitebait filleting competition”; another straight laced conservative couple being described as “Just a couple of middle-aged hippies.”  There are nice touches such as mis-spelled wording on t-shirts, and Lewis Scott not sure at all about his children: “… She’s three’ Or was she four? Maybe she was at school? She could have been eight. Did he have more than three children anyway? He felt his brow furrow.”

I occasionally found the language a bit odd “… my foray into this place”, “… and almost shamefully humanoid”, “… a face so smooth and shiny, it almost seemed oestrogenic.”  But much more often it was artful: “It was the kind of music Bill often played in the bar, it skirted around the walls and vanished for a time, to reappear in a faint and regretful manner, as though to forecast there are some things in life that will never be completed.”

The floating basin is haunting and sad, with great atmosphere and the hint of more Ru Clements novels to come, it has been shortlisted for Best First Novel in this year’s Ngaios and is highly recommended!

Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 finalists


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