The Leaning Man by Anne Harré – 2021

Solace in the Wind is a Wellington waterfront statue, nicknamed The Leaning Man. Stella Weston loves the statue, wanting herself to be able to “lean fearlessly into the unknown, forge ahead, get things done”. But Stella is still traumatised by the incident that caused her to flee her hometown some years before, and Wellington is full of haunting memories. Excruciating toothache and jet lag add to her feeling “unsettled”. She is starting to doubt that her return for her parents’ 40th anniversary was wise. Then one of her best friends, Teri, is found dead in an alley, she discovers a body floating in the harbour, rough sleepers start falling victim to brutal attacks, and she reconsiders her view that “This wasn’t London or New York, for god’s sake. Things don’t happen here”.

Mad-Dog is a rough sleeper, he busks, playing angelic music on his expensive violin. He was once a classical performer, but after the death of his wife and child, he had a breakdown and has ended up on the streets. He keeps himself well groomed, but he is in constant pain and has a nasty cough. He has a few friends: a fellow rough sleeper, a luthier named Gus, who takes care of his violin while Mad-Dog is not busking, and one of the librarians at the central library. He tingles at the rare touch of another human. He muses “It’s all we want really … warmth, kindness, someone to believe we’re worthwhile.” Stella wonders “How can one man be so invisible” but “Mad-Dog had cultivated invisibility, turning it into an art form”.

Stella wants to find Mad-Dog, as he has a vital piece of evidence relating to Teri’s death, and she worries he might be the next victim of the rough sleeper attacks. The librarian Mad-Dog is friendly with is Stella’s Aunt Rita, so it should be easy to find him. Especially as Stella used to be a Wellington cop, on the fast track up the ranks to detective. She should go to the Police, but her guilt and self-loathing spills into her views of how others see her – old colleagues are the last people she wants to talk to. This drives Lassie, her lawyer friend Mitchell Lassiter, to distraction. He, and almost everyone else, thinks Teri committed suicide, but Stella is sure she didn’t. Mad-Dog might have the evidence to prove it.

Running parallel to the lives of the rough sleepers and Stella’s dishevelment, is the flow of affluent life around Wellington. For those readers who know Wellington, The Leaning Man is full of local references and familiar types. But Stella ends up descending into a nightmare world: she (perhaps too coincidentally) finds the floating body of a young girl in the harbour, she blunders upon suspicious goings on at a Kāpiti Coast day spa. Then she visits an exclusive night club where another friend entertains, and where Teri used to work – more strange encounters lead to Stella getting an awful inkling of what Teri might have discovered. The Leaning Man is a tense read, using that great technique where there are enough clues for the reader to be slightly ahead of the sleuth, knowing when they are heading towards danger not safety.

Stella is a great character, rough, clever, sad, and likeable. She finds out things about her family that she feels she should have been told about: her sister wants a child, her brother has gone off the grid, her mother has had a health scare. She finds it hard to realise life has gone on without her. This adds an interesting slant to the story, a haunted insecure woman determined to solve the mystery on her own – why was Teri killed, how does the body in the harbour fit in, who will get to Mad-Dog first? There are plenty of suspects, red-herrings, and psychopaths in the narrative. The reader starts suspecting what’s at the heart of the sequence of events, and it’s awful – but not as awful as when the truth is revealed!

“Like the fall of the Roman Empire, we are in decline”, the rational for the atrocities – things are falling apart so why worry about right or wrong? What gives this book its heart is that someone unhesitatingly does – I hope we see more of Stella Weston. The Leaning Man is a great debut crime novel.

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