Review: DISHONOUR by Gabrielle Lord

DishonourGabrielleLord23201_fOf late, the woman variously labelled the queen or godmother of Australian crime writing has concentrated her publishing efforts on a popular series of novels for young adults but was prompted last year to publish something for her older readers. DISHONOUR, set to be a standalone novel like Lord’s early books, couldn’t be more topical with a protagonist inspired by a serving Sydney policewoman of senior rank and story elements that aren’t so much ripped from the headlines as they are predicting them. It is the story of Debra Hawkins, a Detective Inspector appointed to lead a new unit within the NSW police which aims to help the victims of violence who live within ethnic or cultural groups in which women and girls can be treated in ways that are illegal in Australia. They soon come across a woman of Iraqi heritage who is being physically abused and held a virtual prisoner by her two brothers who are, in addition to being the siblings from Hell, actively involved in the city’s drug dealing scene.

The subjects explored in DISHONOUR are worthy of exposure. The issue of violence within families is getting discussed more widely than has ever been the case before in this country (for example our current Australian of the Year is a remarkable woman who has used her son’s death at the hands of his own father to raise the profile of this subject). But adding the complexity of marginalised and politically sensitive cultural groups and their treatment of women into the mix makes it a whole different story with uncomfortable political and social connotations. Lord does not shy away from these difficulties though and uses the book not only to depict the horrendous situations that some women find themselves in within their own families, but also the alarmingly limited way in which authorities can assist them even when they do find the courage to seek help and the complications that arise when politically charged labels of racism can be thrown at those trying to help. The broader backdrop of the changes in the scale and nature of criminal undertakings in modern Sydney is also on show. For me this social context proved the most successful aspect of the novel.

The character development and storyline left me somewhat disappointed.

I’m only speculating of course but I wondered if the possibility of a series might have resulted in the holding back of some of the back story and present-day dramas that were heaped upon Debra for future installments rather than squeezing so much into a single novel. There’s the murder of her policeman father when she was 12, a stupid and potentially career-ending act she undertook on behalf of her drug-addict brother, and the fact that a criminal whose case she worked has threatened her with death and seems to be taking steps to carry out these threats which are all impacting on Debra’s life. Not to mention two serious family illnesses and a major career problem that eventuate later in the book. She is a contrast to many crime fighting protagonists in that Debra is in a sound, loving relationship and isn’t an alcoholic but she has way too much personal drama going on for me and professionally behaves more obtusely than I think (hope) someone in her position would do. I really struggled to take her seriously at times.

Ultimately for me DISHONOUR was too concerned with Debra and her personal troubles rather than the women and work she was meant to be focused on. Partly I think that is the result of the narrative choice. The entire book is told from Debra’s point of view and I think I’d have preferred it if we were also shown things from the perspective of some of the women seeking the help of Debra’s unit. The only direct exposure we have to their experiences is when they interact with Debra which, when combined with some of the fact-laden passages providing exposition, gives the sensibility that this is not primarily a story about these women and makes the book border on being didactic a few times.

The story itself was a bit of a jumble. The thread dealing with the death of Debra’s father seemed to have an obvious resolution to me from the very beginning and I found it a distraction from what I thought of as the main plot line. Even there though there was too much going on and it was all dealt with a bit superficially to the point that one element seems to have been forgotten entirely between the middle and end of the novel.

Reading DISHONOUR left me frustrated because although it raised important subjects it felt to me too eager to sideline them and focus on a fairly un-suspenseful cold case that wasn’t nearly as interesting to me. It’s as if I embarked on a choose your own adventure novel but someone else’s choices for plot development and resolution were superimposed over my own.

aww-badge-2015This is the fifth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

Publisher: Hachette [2014]
ISBN: 9780733632457
Length: 372 pages
Format: paperback
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Review: DEATH BY BEAUTY, Gabrielle Lord

  • Hachette Australia
  • ISBN 9780733627309
  • $32.99
  • Paperback – C Format
  • September 2012
  • 400 pages

Synopsis (Publisher)

Australia’s queen of crime fiction, Gabrielle Lord, is back with a chilling new novel. A ‘vampire’ is stalking the
streets, attacking beautiful young women; some are murdered days later,
others aren’t touched again. Gemma Lincoln, PI,  begins to see a pattern – but can she convince the authorities to take action before another life is lost?

How far would you go to look young and beautiful?

A young woman is attacked, she claims, by a vampire . Two more are found dead and hideously disfigured. A journalist goes missing after visiting Sapphire Springs Spa. And it’s up to Gemma Lincoln, PI, to find out what is going on.

In her first week back on the job after maternity leave, finding a balance between investigating brutal crimes, caring for baby Rafi and making time for herself and Mike is all too much. Something has to give, but not while a third woman s life is in danger.

As she moves closer to tying the crimes together, Rafi disappears.
Facing a mother’s worst nightmare, Gemma discovers what she is prepared to do to save her son.

My Take

Other Australian female authors in the past, Kerry Greenwood and Jennifer Rowe to name a couple, have set their murder mysteries around a beauty farm. So what Gabrielle Lord is doing in a sense is giving it a modern take – treatments implementing DNA and modern surgery techniques.

Add too a couple of extra elements – beautiful girls being drugged by a vampire – their memories ensuring no-one will believe them, thinking they are drug-induced; and a young woman returning to work with a young child to care for.

Gemma Lincoln has this idea that she will be able to slowly re-immerse herself in her investigative work, but the nature of her job, and Gemma’s own character, ensure that a slow resumption is just not an option. Young mothers reading DEATH BY BEAUTY will find themselves wishing that they had all the backup resources that Gemma has. Add to that the fact that Gemma is living with a man who is not the baby’s father, and things become complicated.

Gabrielle Lord has been occupying her time with writing YA thrillers and this is the first Gemma Lincoln novel for 5 years. It shows that Lord has not lost the touch and kept up with the times. I didn’t like Gemma Lincoln any the more for it – but that is probably just the way she strikes me.

The story is a chilling one about how much money there is in the industry of helping women retain their beauty and even making them look 10 years younger.

My rating: 4.4

I’ve reviewed

Gemma Lincoln series (Fantastic Fiction)

1. Feeding the Demons (1999)
2. Baby Did a Bad Thing (2002)
3. Spiking the Girl (2004)
4. Shattered (2007)
5. Death By Beauty (2012)

Notable Novel: DEATH DELIGHTS by Gabrielle Lord

DeathDelightsLordGabrielleAudioIn 2002 Gabrielle Lord’s novel DEATH DELIGHTS won the Ned Kelly Award for best fiction. Although it was the sixth year the award had been given this was the first occasion a female writer was to receive it, an achievement that has only been repeated once since then with 2012’s PIG BOY by J.C. (Jane) Burke. Lord had been beavering away at the crime and thriller writing caper for at least 22 years by the time she won this award, having released her first standalone novel, FORTRESS, in 1980 and publishing a total of eight books prior to DEATH DELIGHTS.

The novel is a procedural which introduces forensic scientist Jack McCain. Once a cop with the NSW police force Jack studied to become a scientist and now works for the Australian Federal Police based in Canberra. Though when the novel opens he is on leave and is back in Sydney. His old partner asks him to help out with an investigation into the deaths of two men who have been murdered in a particularly grizzly way. Jack (having a vastly different definition of ‘being on leave’ than I do) throws himself into the case.

Jack has more than his fair share of personal troubles as well, several of which come to a head as DEATH DELIGHTS progresses. His teenage daughter Jacinta ran away from home 18 months earlier and Jack and his estranged wife Genevieve are out of leads on where to look for her when police receive and anonymous tip regarding her whereabouts. Jack immediately follows up, learning facts which have disturbing repercussions for his entire family. In addition Jack has never really given up wanting to know what happened to his little sister who also disappeared as a teenager; kidnapped from near their family home when she was 13, some 25 years earlier, and never having been seen alive since then. When it appears there is a connection between his sister’s disappearance and the case of the murdered men whose bodies have been mutilated Jack wonders if he will finally learn what happened to his sister.

DEATH DELIGHTS is complex and suspenseful and while there is some gruesome violence it is not gratuitously dwelt on. Lord weaves together all the elements of Jack’s personal and professional lives with consummate skill and the reader is never left floundering for something interesting to look out for. I particularly like the way this novel combines the traditional investigative type of case, with interviews and surveillance and so on, with the scientific elements. Unlike episodes of CSI or some of the more formulaic novels I’ve read there’s no instant case solving by finding a particularly unlikely fingerprint but the science, always well explained, offers an added dimension to matters at hand.

But the book has other layers too. It is almost like an adult coming of age story for Jack who has so many threads of his personal life to keep track of and so many past mistakes he feels the need to atone for. Lord has explored the notions of family and of how we learn to be good parents, siblings, partners and so on. The idea that this all comes naturally seems to be a given in society but through Jack, who is by no means a deadbeat, we see how hard it can be to take on these roles without a handy instruction manual. What was perhaps most realistic was that even when he knew what the correct behaviour or gesture should be Jack couldn’t always bring himself to give that hug or spend the necessary time with the person who needed him. In other words he was a very realistic human.

DEATH DELIGHTS has something for every crime fiction fan containing procedural, forensic and cold case elements as well as a thoughtful family drama. It can easily hold its own against the more well known imported offerings in these genres, with the added bonus of a thoroughly Australian sensibility. A highly recommended novel that should be seen as a classic of the genre.

For my re-read of this novel in preparation for this post I chose to listen to the unabridged audio version narrated by Aussie actor Francis Greenslade. It’s a terrific edition of the book and Greenslade does a first rate job of the narration, managing to provide a range of natural sounding voices for the large array of characters without once falling into the trap of getting too ‘ocker’. Elsewhere I bemoan the dearth of locally available audio books with affordable pricing and good format options, so here I must direct you to the US Audible store if you are interested

awwbadge_2013I decided that as part of my participation in this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge I would highlight some older novels of the crime genre that are notable for some reason or other, having won an award or contributed to the genre’s development in some way. It’ll be an eclectic mix, largely based on what I can get hold of via my library but if you have any suggestions for books that might make good features please leave a comment.

DEATH DELIGHTS is the second book I’ve read for this year’s challenge

Publisher: Bolinda Audio [this edition 2011, original edition 2001]
Length: 13 hours 25 minutes
Format: mp3
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Review: DEATH BY BEAUTY by Gabrielle Lord

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 [2012]
ISBN: 9780733627309
Length: 381 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Source: I bought it
Creative Commons Licence
This work by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.