The Beautiful Dead by Kim Hunt – 2020

Cal Nyx came to live with her Aunt Zin in rural New South Wales, after an horrendous incident at her home in Aotearoa. She is now an adult, a park ranger living on the property of a farmer friend, and spending most of her time out in the bush. It is when she is carrying out a moth count that she finds the body – it is very decomposed, but as Cal muses, it was once “Someone who lived and breathed, who probably belonged to others.”

Detective Inspector Liz Scobie is given the case when the death is ruled a murder, not an accident. She has a small team of two two-person teams, and plenty of suspects, but no obvious motive. On the suspect list is a young part-time mechanic who looks after his mother who is living with MS, a man who runs diggers and trucks and who has a criminal record, and a young rich son of a local legend, who has a financial interest in a local nightclub where the victim provided the sound system.

The victim, Phillip, was a suspect in a previous murder, that of his partner, Stefan. Stefan’s body was found at his stylish home, where expensive artworks adorn the walls. All three of the suspects were known to associate in some way with the victims. And it transpires that Stefan also has a sister who lives out of the area, but who was at one time suspected of trying to extort money from her and Stefan’s mother. Was the motive for the murders “Money. Sex. Hate. All possible … Fear’s a pretty strong motivator”?

Meanwhile Cal discovers she knew the person whose body she discovered. Phillip (Pip) was the brother of a friend of hers, Di. She is also dealing with the imminent death of a close friend, who is in a hospice. So, she takes some leave, intending to spend time with her ailing friend and to attend Pip’s memorial service. But really, she wants to help Di by doing some poking around to see if she can work out who killed Pip, and why. With two parallel streams of investigation, it isn’t long before Cal realises that her being in most of the places of obvious enquiry, means she is being added to the police persons of interest list. And then Cal becomes a different type of person of interest for DI Scobie, and that leads to the police teams starting to wonder about the leadership capability of their ‘skip’.

What I really liked about The Beautiful Dead was the character of Cal. She is part of a community apart from that where she works, which is not a community, just a group of people who “looked out for each other because they needed one another for survival”. Cal’s community are those she feels safe with, free to express wants that are “not governed by rules or etiquette.” Cal has her uniforms altered to fit: “Trousers, men’s fit … The wide-waist and narrow-hip cut fit her perfectly”, she likes driving fast, pushing cars to their limit, she was “brought up by wolves”, she’s “No lady, mate”, and she frequents a dungeon.

But Cal is also vulnerable, and she is guilt-ridden when she loses her friend in the hospice, and then another woman who was very close to her, in the space of two weeks, feeling she let both down. She is an expert in the local trees, plants, and animals. This means the sense of place is well captured, as Cal is always mentally taking in her surroundings, and birds flying over her or in the bush beside her. You realise the vastness and dangers of the bush, and another skill of Cal’s is getting into danger, leading to some pretty tense scenes.

The Beautiful Dead is a good murder mystery – plenty of suspects, plenty of clues, plenty of possible motives, plenty of danger. Including the danger that stems from community prejudices which require some to keep secrets, secrets about ‘money, sex, hate, fear’, all motives for murder. I enjoyed this intriguing read.

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