Title : Frantic
Author : Katherine Howell
Publisher : Pan McMillan Australia
Date Published : 2007
ISBN-13 : 9781405037976
Sub-genre : Thriller
Principal Protagonist : Detective Ella Marconi
One of the most popular genres in crime fiction is the police procedural as the reader is able to become immersed in all aspects of the crime-solving procedure. Also well represented in the literary landscape is the fire department with a few authors, notable Earl Emerson, doing a wonderful job of detailing arson and other suspicious fires. But a branch of the emergency services that has been almost completely ignored is the ambulance service. Katherine Howell has started to fill that hole and, judging by the pulse-quickening, breathless action she generates, should kick-start a whole new frenzy of excitement.
Sophie Phillips is a paramedic with the New South Wales Ambulance Service stationed at The Rocks in Sydney, one of the busiest locations in Australia. Her home life is no less hectic with a husband who works as a police officer and a 10 month old baby boy.
The story speeds out of the blocks, underlining the frenetic workload that can pile onto a big city paramedic and we're carried along in the cabin of ambulance 31 as Sophie and her partner Mick speed to the scene of a bank robbery at which shots were fired. The robbery is the latest in a series that have been sweeping the city in recent weeks, but that's not Sophie's concern as she fights desperately to save the life of a bank security guard who was shot in the throat.
In quick succession she is called to another emergency or two and, just like that, Howell has created the kind of atmosphere that ensured shows like ER would enjoy huge success.
After the opening flurry of controlled chaos subsides we are given a chance to take a breath and then gain a little bit of an insight into the humanness of the people behind their professional facade. What we soon discover is that Sophie Phillips' life is as filled with personal problems as the rest of us. She and her husband have been experiencing a few ripples of unrest in their marriage which had prompted Sophie to have a drunken one night stand - with her husband's partner, no less.
The New South Wales Police Force are experiencing their own problems with a corruption scandal hanging over their heads, the likes of which has never been experienced before. An anonymous caller has notified the local media with the news that the spate of bank robberies have been carried out by police officers. The force's position isn't improved when the Police Commissioner is involved in a car accident on his way to the airport with his mistress in the passenger seat and a boot full of cash.
Corruption, scandal, emergency-fuelled action. But all of that pales into insignificance when Sophie's husband is shot on their front doorstep and her son, Lachlan, is abducted.
This brings Detective Ella Marconi into the picture. Marconi is finally getting a crack at heading up an important investigation, assisting lead detective Dennis Orchard. It's the break she's been hoping for after years of being overlooked due to a bit of a misunderstanding at an earlier crime scene when she told an Assistant Commissioner to get the fuck out of her crime scene.
The police have a number of pressing issues facing them on this one with a missing child, a shot cop, the missing child is the son of the shot cop, the possibility that it could all be linked back to the bank robbery gang. The extreme motivation to impress that Marconi harbours could help or hinder the investigation - it could go either way.
There is no let up in this story, as the title suggests it charges full steam ahead in a state of sustained urgency. There is a subtle change in the tone of the novel as it moves from the opening scenes where there is a sense of control while travelling with professional paramedics who are capable of working under pressure on a daily basis. Sharply contrasted is the panic that Sophie encounters upon learning that her son has been abducted.
A mother's distress coupled with a need to do something sends Sophie spinning off on a futile hunt as a loose cannon through the streets of Sydney. Meanwhile a highly motivated detective with a lot to prove is working the case from the police's end. It's a highly volatile mix and it's destined to come together with all manner of unexpected results.
Frantic is an outstanding thriller that I found immediately entertaining. I drew the comparison earlier to the TV show ER because it often felt as though each hour-long episode flew by in mere minutes. Reading Frantic, I had the same experience. When the paramedics are in action I was completely engrossed by the crisp, clear professional way the emergencies were handled. Equally, Howell was also able to convey a mother's anguish in an understated, yet completely convincing way.
More good news after reading the final page of Frantic with the promise of Howell's 2nd book, Panic, beckoning in the future which also features Ella Marconi. If making a positive impression is the goal of a debut novel then fans will be queuing up upon news of the release of a second. Frantic is a high-quality thriller and Katherine Howell is a name to watch out for.
For more reviews of Australian crime and mystery novels, visit the Australian Crime Fiction Database.
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