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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Review : The Shadow Maker by Robert Sims

Title : The Shadow Maker

Author : Robert Sims
Publisher : Allen & Unwin
Date Published : 2007
ISBN-13 : 9781741751734
Sub Genre : Psychological Thriller
Principal Protagonist : DS Marita Van Hassel
Setting : Melbourne, Australia

A good thriller will grab your attention early on with a memorable hook and maybe an unusual twist that sets the story apart from the many others out there. That probably has to go double if it's a debut novel. Robert Sims appears to have taken this mantra to heart in no uncertain terms in his highly impressive psychological thriller The Shadow Maker.

There's no better way to illustrate the attention arresting scene than by using the quote that also sits on the books back cover:

She put her fingers to her nose and sniffed something like soot or ash. At first she thought her face had been disfigured then realised there were no wounds on her cheeks. So where did the burnt smell come from? Tentatively she moved her fingertips to her eye sockets. That's when she started screaming.
Yup, the squeamish beware, but it certainly compelled me to read on.

The brutal rape and mutilation of a prostitute in a Melbourne hotel sets the grim tone of The Shadow Maker very early on. A predator is on the loose and even though he's careless about the traces of himself that he leaves at the crime scene, the police struggle to make any early inroads on their investigation.

A member of the Melbourne Sexual Crime Squad assigned to the case is Detective Sergeant Marita Van Hassel, an up and coming officer who has had training as a criminal profiler and, even though criminal profiling is still viewed with scepticism by the brass, she is thought of particularly highly.

Left at the crime scene, along with any amount of fingerprints, weapons, semen and the like, is what looks like some sort of a smart card with the legend "Plato's Cave" printed on the back. When taken back to the experts to examine, it is discovered that the card is heavily encrypted and chances of retrieving any sort of information from it will prove virtually impossible. The card was almost certainly accidentally left behind by the attacker and stacks up as the most promising piece of evidence they have.

"Plato's Cave" is significant to Rita for a couple of reasons. The first, and most glaringly obvious, is that this is the name of a nightclub owned by one of Melbourne's biggest organised crime figures. Tony Kavella has already evaded prosecution once before after being charged with running a vice ring 6 months earlier. Kavella and Rita have a strong dislike for one another stemming from this earlier bust and she jumps at the chance to rattle his cage one more time.
The problem for Rita is that due to an ongoing undercover police surveillance operation into Kavella's movements, he's off limits. Meanwhile the evidence begins to stack up higher and higher. The prostitute was a regular at the nightclub, the smart card is just the kind of thing the crime king-pin would get into and Kavella's just asking for it. And according to Rita's profile, there's more to come from their predator. He's just getting warmed up.

An escalating level of violence is the key to the tone of The Shadow Maker as the urgency to solve the crime grows at an alarming rate. As gruesome as the opening scenes are, there's more to come and the attacks are getting more reckless and frenzied.

In what seems to be a common theme in police procedurals the investigating officers are constantly hounded by their superiors who apply the usual level of unreasonable pressure to get results. This felt to me as though it were a manufactured attempt to make it seem as though Rita has to overcome enormous odds if she is to succeed. Why can't we, just occasionally, have a Chief Superintendent who firstly, has a clue about detective work, and secondly, understands that not everything just falls neatly into place?

Sims puts together a finely constructed plot that draws together a diverse array of threads filled with potential suspects any of whom could prove to be the person we're after. There is a certain casualness in the way the suspense is allowed to build in the story until suddenly you are thrown wide-eyed into the final confrontation.

As an action-based psychological thriller, The Shadow Maker succeeds in delivering a power-packed story. And although the main characters are still as largely unknown quantities at the end of the book as they are at the start, there is a sense that there will be more to come featuring the strong-willed, but enigmatic, Detective Sergeant Rita Van Hassel.
For more reviews of Australian crime and mystery novels, visit the Australian Crime Fiction Database.

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