Evil “doesn’t always lurk in city centres after dark. It mows your lawns, frequents your local pub, takes its kids to school and contributes to communities.” Journalist Miller Hatcher is back, back in small town New Zealand, where: “Any ambition she held was now buried by past failures and mistakes.”
Miller is counting her days sober, but her thoughts are never far from alcohol. She has moved to the small town of Lentford, not far out of Hamilton, and misses her job with prestigious First look magazine. She pushes the boundaries in the Lentford leader, with articles on school bullying and period poverty in between those of local houses of interest and the Christmas Parade, but “… the readership wasn’t overly interested in the big issues.”
Miller is scarred, literally and figuratively, by her past. She believes Lentford is where she deserves to be, not where she wants to be. She doesn’t feel part of the community, but she values her few friends and is heading towards some level of contentment, she even has a bit of a crush on a local printer, Jay. But then a young woman is murdered, and the murderer reaches out to Miller via a letter asking her to tell his story, asking for her to make him a household name, as he plans to kill again.
Kahu Parata (from the first Miller Hatcher outing, Nothing bad happens here), arrives to take the case, he is now a Detective Sergeant and grieving over losing his wife to cancer. But Miller is confident the case will be resolved soon: “That’s what Kahu did. Caught the baddies.”
There are two other stories that run in parallel with the tension-building main thread:
Cassie is obsessed with finding out who murdered her mother, and her obsession has ended with her being institutionalised in a treatment facility in Lentford. She decides to stay on after her release, hoping to find out how her mother’s remains ended up buried on the town’s outskirts – Miller decides to help by running Cassie’s story.
Logan’s sister was murdered when he was twelve, and he was the one who found her body. A lifelong fascination with her murder has led to him starting up a True Crime Enthusiasts Club, the ‘murder club’, complete with planned tours of local murder sites – Miller agrees to help by running Logan’s story.
The Murder Club is narrated through oppressive unseasonal heat, sudden short downpours, the smell of lawn clippings and heat, with Miller often in small fuggy rooms with cloying smells. She is surrounded by small time pettiness and gossip. When she becomes party to information about the current murders, she, a journalist, does a better job of discretion than one of the local cops, who loves to be the centre of attention at the local pub. The town has no shortage of possible suspects, and as each falls under suspicion, the locals don’t hold back in judging, exaggerating and embellishing.
The plotting in The Murder Club is superb, the stories all gaining momentum and interweaving. Cassie ends up in an abusive relationship with another woman, also an ex-patient of the facility, Logan seems to pop up all over the place, and there is the awful knowledge that as the letters keep coming, so will the murders. And of course, Miller and the reader knows that eventually the murderer will come for her in person.
The theme of the novel I particularly admired was the consideration of the ethics of “… the public deserves to know – don’t they?” The desire of the murderer to be notorious, the commercialisation of murder via the murder club tours, the immediate adoption of a soubriquet: The Scarf Killer. Do journalists do the right thing by telling the ‘other side of the story’, giving the deceased a voice, or do they commodify them and their stricken family members into victims? There is a powerful scene where, during a trial run of the club tour, they are at a murder site when the victim’s mother arrives to place flowers, and she confronts Logan in disgust. And why should we know about the perpetrators? As one of the murdered women’s mothers says of the murderer at a vigil: “He doesn’t deserve to be known.”
Also handled well is the story of the murder of women at the hands of weak and self-obsessed men, men who see themselves as victims but somehow noble. All the young women have varied stories and various reasons for being in Lentford, a small town where everyone feels safe until … they’re not. And there is a great moment of fury during the vigil, when a woman reacts to the mayor saying the women should take precautions to keep themselves safe – furious that the response to women being murdered is to advise them what they should do to avoid it.
The Murder Club is a tense, scary, atmospheric read and I really hope we meet Miller Hatcher again!