Featuring one of Lord’s two recurring characters, Sydney-based private detective Gemma Lincoln, DEATH BY BEAUTY takes place about 18 months after the conclusion of the previous book in this series, 2007’s SHATTERED. The baby that Gemma was wondering if she would keep at the end of that novel is nearly a year old, she’s living with fellow investigator Mike though he is not the father of the baby (that honour belongs to Gemma’s ex who plays a big part in the story too), and as the book opens she is returning to work. Almost immediately she becomes embroiled in several cases all at once. These include that of a woman who believes her new husband is going to kill her for the money he would inherit on her death, one where a woman claims to have been attached by a vampire and a police case in which two women have been killed in peculiar circumstances. In addition she becomes involved in trying to help her ex lover, who is a cop, beat the false allegations being made about him by a criminal couple.
I’ve been a fan of Gabrielle Lord’s novels for many years and was chuffed to learn that this year there would be a new crime novel for adults after a five year gap (during which she published a successful series of YA adventures). So I’m a bit sad to have to admit to being disappointed by the book, even though it’s mostly not the author’s fault. In the last few years, as I have widened my reading horizons thanks to having a bit more disposable income and being able to source books from around the world, I have found crime fiction that uses the conventions of the genre to explore interesting social and political ideas in addition to telling good stories. And I suppose I wanted to think that an author who I have thought of as a favourite, especially one of the Australian women crime writers who sparked my interest in local crime fiction, writes the kind of books I like most and was a little miffed when DEATH BY BEAUTY proved not to be one of these. But it’s probably unfair to review what the book isn’t.
It is a fast-paced if undemanding read with a story that doesn’t have much chance to get dull. It does a nice job depicting Gemma’s relationships with the women in her life – primarily her best friend Angie and her sister Kit – which struck me I think because such close, healthy relationships between women are not often on show in crime fiction. It also realistically shows the trials of being a working mum. The theme that I thought it might explore – the impact that an endless quest for beauty and looking young can have on women – is there but only superficially.
The book, in particular Gemma, is also irritating in its lack of realism. While I suppose her personal “should I stay with the man who loves me and my son unconditionally or go back to the cheating SOB who keeps screwing up his life and mine?” angst is realistic enough I found her professional behaviour incredible for someone who has supposedly been a policewoman then licensed investigator for many years. For example she uses herself as bait by signing up to an online dating site to hook up with the man who is suspected of planning to kill his wife. But despite having ample resources and experts at her disposal and every indication that her target will research her finances if nothing else, she doesn’t take a single action to provide herself with a credible back story – no fake ID, no social media profiles in her fake name, driving to their meetings in her own car etc. It was not therefore the least bit suspenseful that this stupidity nearly cost Gemma her life.
But to be fair I don’t think this book is that different from its series predecessors. Gemma has always put herself in danger at the drop of a hat, she’s always had an unrealistic amount of access to police cases and resources and the books have always been heavy on the violence, usually against women. What’s changed is that I don’t enjoy these books in the way I once did.
Happily one of Lord’s strengths as an author is that she does not write just one kind of book. She has another series featuring a male scientific analyst and has also written great standalone novels that cross several genres. So if you like the kind of women-in-peril book that is very popular (think Tess Gerritsen or Karin Slaughter) then give Lord’s Gemma Lincoln series a try. And if you don’t then keep an eye out for something like FORTRESS (a fictionalised account of a real kidnapping of school students and their teacher) or 1992’s WHIPPING BOY (a memorable tale of child abuse and the corruption that lets it happen).
Publisher: Hachette 
Length: 381 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
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