Expectant by Vanda Symon – 2023

When an atrocious murder of a pregnant woman is committed in Dunedin, Detective Sam Shephard’s boss wants her off the investigation – he doesn’t believe “because of your own advanced state of pregnancy, that you would be able to remain objective and emotionally detached from this case.” But Sam is not having a bar of it, it’s not that she can’t remain objective or detached, but because subjective and attached is how Sam does her best work.

Expectant deals with the most inhuman and the most human of crimes, those that involve babies. The book scans every case and scenario, from Minnie Dean in the 1800s, convicted of infanticide, through the various cases of new-born infants being stolen. They are taken from hospitals, cars, prams. Sometimes taken by desperate women who have lost children, or by those who can’t conceive or carry a baby to term. And then there are the darker motives, those taken for money, for exploitation, for medical purposes.

And the novel doesn’t shy away from Aotearoa / New Zealand having “some of the worst statistics in the world when it came to the domestic abuse of children”. Sam, who will give birth in just over three weeks, must confront these realities. But her condition, with the odd Braxton Hicks contraction, her frequent need of the loo, and the constant attacks of the munchies, spurs Sam on to find the culprit and their motive. Time is always of the essence in solving crimes, and Sam has her own deadline looming: “This week coming is my last one at work.”

Sam Shephard is one of my favourite crime-solving characters – she is outspoken, clumsy, off-side with many of her colleagues and most of her superiors, but she is caring and empathetic and doesn’t ignore her gut instincts. There are lovely moments in the book, such as when she is talking to the brave young man who, along with his tagging gang, found the dying woman – and who chose to stay with her as she died rather than scarpering with his mates. And when she sits with a young woman and her mother, the young woman having ended up being of interest to the police for doing something terrible, because she had been scared and feeling totally alone.

Sam is a fearless detective, and she is also funny – getting her baby bump wedged between stools and needing to be rescued (“Jesus, Sam, you’re a goon”), having a love/hate but mainly love relationship with her Mum, bantering with her best friend Maggie and partner Paul. Although Sam is a strong character, others are not completely eclipsed – even her unborn child demands attention, already displaying a temperament, much to the annoyance of Sam’s cat. One of the stars of Expectant is Dunedin. The spring flowers, the funky eateries, the oddly shaped streets, and the banks that even added all together couldn’t scrape up a million dollars in cash for a ransom. And the text is so familiar, with its use of Kiwi slang: “It wasn’t a ‘Dunner stunner’ day”, “the dungier the car the better”.

Sam’s respect for the victims and empathy with the perpetrators is compelling – she imagines the emptiness felt by the bereaved and those who have had people taken – the vacuums left by the loss of people, and by the loss of a feeling of safety. The neighbours who no longer know each other or care about each other, who might dob each other in if someone suddenly is seen with a baby, or who might do so in an act of petty revenge.

Contrasted with this lack of information about those near us are the dangers of social media, where it is easy to glean personal information about strangers, and the risk of official electronic records that can be manipulated and inappropriately accessed. Sam’s investment in the case given her pregnancy is a great device, not only on the emotional side, but the practical too – her knowing what it is to be a pregnant woman going through the health system. Sam might be a cipher in the health system, but she refuses to be one in the police system, and the reader feels her outrage when one of her bosses tells her off for contaminating a crime scene – when not to do so would have been an act of cruelty.

“This investigation was starting to feel like a juggling act in which, every few seconds, someone tossed in a new ball” – the plotting of Expectant is lively and intriguing. There is one of those lovely moments when you realise a possible outcome before the protagonist, and you must read about them moving into danger with no way to tell them! And in the final resolution, Sam must make the most amazing choice, a plot turn that would only work with a character as human and complex as Sam. Expectant can be read as a stand-alone, or first go back and read Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment, and Bound – you won’t regret it!

This entry was posted in #yeahnoir, Book Review. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s