Crimson Lake was certainly a superior piece of crime fiction. Though the plot is strong, the book is character led and the character of the first-person narrator is established quickly and effectively in the opening paragraphs. Ex-copper Ted Conkaffey is holed up near Cairns, hiding out in the heat of Northern Australia with most people convinced that he raped and nearly murdered a young girl, Claire Bingley. Bitter and isolated, Ted is likely to drink himself to death, if the local vigilantes don’t get him first. His lawyer, the only person who really believes his innocence, persuades him to partner up with Amanda Pharrell, the other town outcast, released from prison after serving a sentence for murder and now, to the disgust of the local police, running a detective agency.
Amanda and Ted are hired to find a missing person and their hunt takes them into a dark underworld of police corruption. Old secrets are uncovered and we learn why Amanda is the strange creature that she has become and more of what drives Ted. To say any more is to give away far too much of a plot that deserves to be left to grab hold of you and pull you in, like one of the crocs that keep lurking in the margins of this story.
The book kept me turning the pages to the very end. That said, it is not an especially easy read. Much of the plot revolves around sexual crime involving very young girls. Although the book is carefully non-prurient, the subject matter may be difficult for some. I guess it falls into the ‘gritty crime’ genre rather than ‘cosy crime’. But if you like gritty crime with compelling characters and a complex but involving plot, I cannot recommend this too strongly.
At the beginning of Redemption Point, Conkaffey has been tracked down by Claire’s father who beats him half to death. Ted manages to convince him that there might be some evidence that he was not guilty and ex-police detective and grieving father forge an unlikely alliance in their attempts to find the real villain.
Meanwhile, Amanda has been commissioned to find the killer of a local boy shot in a bar as he closed up for the night.
The two unlikely crime fighters are joined by a minor character from the first book, Philippa Sweeney, who owes her rapid promotion from beat police officer to Detective Inspector in part to Ted and Amanda’s previous venture. Sweeney is thus happy to have the two private investigators alongside as they struggle to solve this apparently random and motiveless murder.
Ted has been accused of a terrible crime that he did not commit; Amanda has served prison time for a murder which she definitely did commit, even if there were extenuating circumstances; and Pippa carries the guilt of standing by and watching her father die while quite deliberately doing nothing to save him. All three are deeply damaged people, but we are sympathetic not only to Ted (who really has done nothing wrong) but to the other two who have, at least, been over-intimately involved in the deaths of others. Even Dale Bingley, the raped girl’s father, although much less fully realised than the other characters, has been turned into, in many ways, a terrible person because of his exposure to a crime that he was just psychologically unable to cope with.
A fifth key character is Kevin, the man who really did rape Claire, who we see through the pages of his diary. He is, it should go without saying, an awful, awful man. But even in Kevin we see some glimpses of humanity. He knows what he is doing is wrong and at one level really wants to stop himself, but he is too sick and too weak not to give way to his urges. Watching him justifying himself is, to put it mildly, disturbing, but this is powerful writing that pulls the book well clear of your average detective thriller.
With all these fascinating characters, it would be easy for Candice Fox to skimp on the mechanics of the mystery story. Instead, though, the detective side of this story is as solid as the characterisation. It’s hardly a police procedural, but the killing at Crimson Lake has a satisfying crop of clues and red herrings.
The investigation of Claire’s rape has rather more in common with the way these things are looked at in real life, Ted and Dale spending hours checking car registrations against lists of known sex offenders. The breakthrough, when it comes, relies on an unlikely plot twist, but by then we’re so invested in the characters that we don’t care.
Redemption Point is a solid piece of crime fiction that is every bit as good as Crimson Lake. Whether the series can sustain a third book is, to my mind, doubtful, but on the strength of the first two I’ll certainly be willing to give a third novel a go.