Review: DOUBLE MADNESS by Caroline De Costa

DoubleMadnessDeCostaIn the aftermath of 2011’s Cyclone Yasi a woman’s body is found in Far North Queensland’s remote wilderness. She has been tied in position with silk scarves and the expensive high heels she is wearing indicate she was unlikely to have made her own way to the location. But there is no obvious cause of death and with no missing persons reports matching the woman’s description it takes Cairns police detective Cass Diamond and her colleagues some time to first identify the woman and then piece together the circumstances that led to her death.

There is a lot to like about this debut novel. The standout element is probably the setting – both in terms of geography and social context. The success of this aspect of the novel no doubt draws on De Costa’s own experiences as a professor at the School of Medicine at James Cook University which allow her to depict Cairns and its surrounds very realistically. Opening the novel with events taking place amid a real recent cyclone quickly allows the reader to imagine themselves in the setting, and De Costa follows up with rich detail of how the lives of the relatively closed medical profession all interact to provide both an interesting community and a suspect pool.

Often when characters of minority backgrounds are depicted in popular culture the entire focus is on the element that marks them out as ‘different’. It is as if every thought or line of dialogue the person has is invisibly prefaced by the sentiment “As a disabled/Aboriginal/gay person I feel/think…”  I don’t know whether it was deliberate or not but I loved the fact that Cass Diamond, who is Aboriginal, is not depicted in this way. When it is natural as part of the story reference is made to Cass’ cultural background but there are plenty of times when she is simply a mum, a cop or a friend experiencing things in the same way as any other mum, cop or friend might do. Early on I found myself thinking ‘Hallelujah this is not going to be one of those books in which everything that happens has some kind of special meaning because Cass is Aboriginal‘. Cass is a terrifically engaging character displaying a great mix of humour, determination and intelligence and I would be happy to see more of her in the future.

The novel takes its name from the psychosis which two of its characters display. We learn something about this via the police investigation as the life of the victim is slowly fleshed out, but there’s also a secondary narrative that provides glimpses of the lives of the various people who have interacted with the central couple. This is a complex structure but De Costa pulls it off, although there are one or two superfluous interludes that indicate the novel was trying a bit too hard to provide a large pool of potential culprits.  Or perhaps I am being unfairly harsh because my aging brain found it a tad difficult to keep track of the large cast, almost all of whom were doctors.

The novel explores several themes with a light but deft touch, the most interesting of these to me being the natural human reaction to certain kinds of crime. Without giving too much away much of the core case is revealed to revolve around numerous people being blackmailed, essentially for having sex with someone they ought not to have been having sex with. The novel poses the notion that the average person is likely to feel sympathy for the blackmail victim, even when the behaviour for which that person was being blackmailed might normally be considered immoral. I found this an interesting concept to ponder and wondered if it is true whether it is a relatively recent phenomenon and whether it is the same across different cultures. I suppose these thoughts were prompted by the juxtaposition of me reading this novel  in the aftermath of the Ashley Madison hacking incident. At least some of the social media commentary arising from this sordid tale lead me to believe that not everyone’s sympathies might lie with the blackmail victims as proposed in DOUBLE MADNESS but I enjoyed the topical nature of the theme and the fact it gave me issues to think about at my leisure.

I was a little wary at the outset of this novel given ‘woman tied up and left for dead’ is a somewhat tired trope in the crime genre but De Costa takes the story somewhere very different from the run-of-the-mill slasher nonsense. It’s a fabulously Australian story with an engaging protagonist and remained completely compelling even when I realised I didn’t much care for the murder victim (yes I know that reveals rather a lot about my own personality but it can’t be helped, I struggle to care about the deaths of some fictional people). Top stuff.

aww-badge-2015This is the 11th book I’ve reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge (though I’ve 14 books). Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Margaret River Press [2015]
ISBN: 9780987561564
Length: 357 pages
Format: paperback
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