AWWNYRC Review #1: Frantic, by Katherine Howell

I joined up with the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge and have started on my list of 10 books by, you guessed it, Australian women writers to read this year, the national year of reading. Here’s the first review:

Frantic

Katherine Howell
Pan Macmillan, 2007, ISBN: 978 1 4050 3797 6

frantic by katherine howell


FRANTIC by name, frantic by nature. And intriguing, too.

This is the debut novel from Katherine Howell, who drew on her experience as a paramedic in telling the story of heroine Sophie, a Sydney paramedic. Sophie’s husband, Chris, is shot at the door of their house and their baby, Lachlan, is kidnapped. Every parent’s nightmare, right?

Add in a vicious bunch of bank robbers who might be coppers and a relationship going through a rough patch, and you’ve got a compelling thriller anchored in the world of the emergency services.

Also starring is police detective Ella Marconi, whose career has stalled due to her run-in with a boss.

It’s not hard to see why the novel has brought Howell kudos, a series and a following. The medical and police procedural rings true, without the bells and whistles of a Hollywood performance. The law is not so much an ass as a mule that we trust to plod its way across the legal terrain, getting there in the end. But of course, Lachlan doesn’t have time for plodding: Sophie is prepared to do anything to get him back. Howell’s portrayal of the mother’s anxiety is spot-on. Frantic, indeed.

australian women writers challenge 2012The story puts the reader in an interesting seat. Certain medical emergencies attended by Sophie have varying degrees of import with the core storyline, and the reader must decide which are relevant, and how. The event that triggers the story — the shooting of Sophie’s policeman husband Chris — is clearly not what the police, a little mysteriously, seem to believe it is. Why isn’t Chris dead? Why is Lachlan missing? Why the note? It just doesn’t add up.

And then Chris gets his own point of view, so his role, while murky, is largely understood. And then, perhaps halfway through the book, the villain is revealed, and the reader is no longer left in the position of a whodunit but, rather, the position of an observer watching the web being woven, and why, and wondering who will be ultimately trapped.

It’s a methodical tale, competently told, with attention to detail — leaves in drains, the smell of food — and no grandstanding. Marconi is neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dirty Harry. Sophie is not an action hero. Chris is not Chuck Norris. No one gets out unscathed or unaffected, not even Marconi.

That down-to-earth approach is perhaps the novel’s most endearing feature. The resolution leaves the questions satisfactorily answered. It’s no surprise that Marconi is still going strong, five books later.

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