I am not a fan of the relatively modern trend towards narrower and narrower ‘genrefication’ of fiction because I believe it repels more readers than it attracts (though I’ll admit this is based on anecdotal and experiential evidence rather than the scientific kind). For example, my expectations that something with the ‘romantic suspense’ label would be too mushy for my tastes has put me off reading anything by Australian author Bronwyn Parry until, fuelled by a personal goal to read at least a smattering of books I wouldn’t otherwise read as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I plunged into Parry’s third novel, DEAD HEAT. Happily for me it’s an absolute ripper of a yarn and its quota of mushy stuff is well within my personal tolerance levels. But I still think the book will miss a lot of readers (including, I’d wager, the entire male population) based on both its explicit and implicit marketing.
The novel takes place in rural New South Wales where Jo Lockwood is a National Parks Ranger. One morning while going about her normal duties she notices a kangaroo carrying the unlikely breakfast of a human arm and when she backtracks to where the roo came from she finds the body of a man who has been brutally murdered. Soon police, including Detective Nick Matheson, are on the scene. Matheson has only been in his job a few days, having recently transferred to ‘normal duties’ after ten years of undercover work. Unfortunately for everyone involved this murder is just one event in a series that will spell danger for the entire community. Be in no doubt, this is no cosy ‘all the violence takes place off-stage’ kind of novel!
It’s clear Bronwyn Parry knows and loves the Australian landscape: through Jo’s eyes in particular the book shows both its beauties and dangers in stark reality. In fact it was more than a little eerie to read such well-described fire fighting scenes on the very day an unseasonally late fire was ripping through bushland a mere 20 kilometres from my safe city cottage this past weekend. The depiction of modern rural life was completed by the inclusion of the kind of community spirit that does engender small town life in Australia, in particular the human powered magic that is Rotary and its equivalent organisations.
The authentic and quite enveloping setting provides an excellent backdrop for the cracking yarn which belied my ‘life’s slower in the country’ belief by not letting me stop for breath even once. There’s a rogue cop, international drug cartel links and a quite alarming number of dead bodies for something partially labelled romance but it all hangs together very nicely and made me eager to turn each page. You won’t be surprised to learn that Jo and Nick do form a romantic attachment but it’s not even remotely mushy and although the path to their love does not run smoothly the obstacles are not the cliché’s I worried about. Their respective back stories are drama-laden but believable and I found myself keen to know how their personal demons would work their way into unfolding events.
DEAD HEAT reminded me a little of Nevada Barr’s terrific series of novels set in American national parks which also feature a female ranger of independent spirit. The combination of evocative setting, suspense-filled plot and solidly built characters was very engaging and I will definitely be reading more of Parry’s work. She has won extra points on my personal scale because her books all seem to be standalones which, in this era of the never ending series, I find refreshing.
This is the 9th book I’ve read for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge
Publisher: Hachette 
Length: 360 pages
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