Caught Between by Jeannie McLean – 2020

Tova Tan is part Māori and part Chinese, “I feel caught between Mum’s whānau, who I don’t know, and Dad’s world where I don’t belong”. This cultural mix makes life tricky for Tova in Aotearoa – where racism is alive and well. When her landlady and her landlady’s daughter are found murdered – Tova falls under suspicion. But, unbeknownst to her, she has someone on her side. Constable Finn McIntosh has his own reasons to be a bit cautious in trusting his police colleagues, and he tends to get a bit goofy around Tova.

Two kids find the first body, the daughter, Jasmine Dunn. They find her by a sea wall near some mangroves. KK is a bullied kid from a caring home, Jacob is from an abusive home who “watched too many gangsta rap videos, imitating their staccato inflections, the sway of shoulders and the use of racist terms”, and insists that KK keeps his mouth shut – but KK can’t help but alert a passer-by on the way home. Tova comes back from a six weeks teacher placement in Tauranga to find that someone, presumably Jasmine, has been using her flat, and that the Dunn’s house upstairs is open, empty, and has been spotlessly cleaned. She eventually calls the police to report the missing pair.

Detective Pavletich from Henderson police has already put together a team, including Finn, to investigate the girl’s death, and on the first day of investigations, her mother’s body is found in some sand dunes at O’Neill Bay. Finn knows Tova from a case back in Counties Manukau, investigating the death of her mother, well known actor Areta Amahua. Tova was convinced her mother’s death wasn’t a suicide. But Detective Senior Sergeant Hammond Harris insisted it was. Tova got the reputation of being unreasonable, and Finn, who didn’t think the case was being investigated properly, moved “out west” to Henderson. Until Tova appears as a person of interest in the Dunn murders, Finn had been keeping a low profile.

There are reasons apart from the prejudice of the previous case that Tova is of interest; she doesn’t disclose she had an argument with Jasmine before leaving for Tauranga, her BMW has been seen in the neighbourhood near where Jasmine was found, and Tova models part time to make money to fund her teacher training. And when she tells the police Juliette Dunn worked in an aged care facility, and it turns out she in fact ran several brothels, it seems a small step to conclude with no evidence that Tova was probably one of Mrs Dunn’s girls. Tova’s car however was a gift from her wealthy father, Malcolm Tan, one she never used. Tova has distanced herself from her father after finding out as a young girl that he had a wife and son in up-market Mellons Bay. Her half-brother, Richard, is a lost soul with a drug habit, and has access to the car. Tova is instinctively reluctant to say too much to the police, and her father tries to get her to make use of his creepy lawyer, Mr Zhou. One of the police remarks, “Maybe Tan runs gangs … He’s a rich Chinese, isn’t he?”

Caught between is complex, with Tova trying to work out what is going on as well as the police. Neither are making much progress, with some members of the public preferring to talk to reporters rather than to the police. Pretty soon two heavies start throwing their weight around, and everyone seems to be involved in ways Tova can’t work out. Even Jacob’s parents, who appear to be connected to the same heavies that her brother is mixed up with, are connected to Tova in a way she could never have imagined. Through it all she just keeps going, one step at a time, protecting the innocent, trying to find out who the bad guys are. Meanwhile Finn is doing the same, partnered with colleagues who are all too human, one reacting badly to danger, one desperately wanting to fall pregnant, one possibly addicted to gambling. And Finn is wonderfully fragile too, staggering on through attacks and injuries, often needing to have a wee, finding himself back at high school with “Don’t pick me first” in his mind at a police debrief, and then there’s Tova – he drives past her at a bus stop at one point, “He resisted the urge to wave.”

The novel is viscerally written, you can smell the environment, feel the injuries. It moves along nicely as a great complex puzzle and then it turns into a nail-biting hostage thriller. Throughout all are the questions – who is innocent, who are the bad guys – and why are they doing bad things? And there is the juxtaposition of those burdened by expectation and those burdened by having no one expecting anything of them, the divide between wealth and the privilege and difficulties it brings, and the often-insurmountable challenges that come with deprivation. Tova’s finding out what really happened to her mother reveals yet more complications for her, and she finds more and more she wants to trust Finn. The romance angle is delicately woven through the narrative, adding texture but in no way holding up the action. The story unfolds through the points of view of Tova and Finn, nicely bracketed by that of KK. KK and Jacob’s stories background the novel, with them doing the right thing against appalling odds. A really great read.

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