It’s with great reluctance that Alex Tillerson is spending time in the strangely insular Australian coastal town of Merritt – and there are many reasons why she really doesn’t want to be there. For starters, the place brings back unhappy memories of childhood visits to her grandparents, who were not exactly the kiss and cuddle type.
Which brings us to reason number two… Alex’s mother, Denny, who is descending into dementia but refuses point-blank to admit it. Denny and her parents had a fractious relationship which led to her leaving Merritt, young and pregnant, only returning on sufferance. Now she lives in her parents’ former home and Alex is here to try to persuade her mother to move into sheltered accommodation. I bet you can guess how that’s going…
The pair are walking on the beach, Alex trying to build bridges and make her mother see sense, Denny steadfastly ignoring her daughter and stubbornly changing the subject, when they come upon a dismembered leg. The discovery brings them together in a common purpose, and while Alex sends a protesting Denny home, she waits… and waits… for police assistance.
It eventually comes in the shape of Senior Sergeant Kingsley ‘King’ Kelly of the Merritt police. He seems pretty unfazed by the limb, which bears a distinctive tattoo of a black feather.
The next day it is identified as belonging to Merritt art gallery owner Maxine McFarlane, who was a keen kayaker. Kelly dismisses the find as a boating trip gone wrong, but something doesn’t add up to Alex. She’s a lawyer whose work seems to have dried up since she split with her husband Tom, who is also a lawyer (and when we get to meet him, it’s apparent that he’s a bit of a knob as well).
Alex starts snooping, much to Kelly’s annoyance. He warns her off in no uncertain terms, but Alex is hooked – especially when she learns about an earlier murder in Merritt. Bella Gregg was a talented young artist and activist who made herself a pair of black wings to wear at protests. She was wearing them on the day she disappeared and they were never recovered.
When she died, Maxine was preparing an exhibition of Bella’s work so the two women were linked. And while Maxine’s damaged body was found in the sea, her lungs contained no sea water; Bella, found on land, had salt water in her lungs. Things are getting curiouser and curiouser.
When We Fall is a densely plotted book, with strands converging and then darting away again like the nets used by the local fishermen. This is a murder mystery that benefits from some skilfully applied nuance, which adds depth, light and shade to the narrative. Although the two mysterious deaths are what occupies our central character, Alex has much, much more to contend with – a husband insisting on a quick divorce, a mother who is never going to make anything simple for her daughter, a career that’s teetering on the brink of extinction… All combine to make her a hugely sympathetic character and one you can fully relate to.
The fictional town of Merritt in southern Australia has its part to play, and Clifford manages to avoid all of the tired old Aussie crime fiction tropes as she creates a place that is pretty unwelcoming for somewhere that is trying to reinvent itself as an up-and-coming visitor hub. It also rains… a lot! No overweening sense of overbaked earth and overwhelming heat here.
Like Alex, as the tale unfolds you’ll find yourself doubting almost everyone and questioning their motives. Add to that the cloying claustrophobia of a small seaside town and its tight-lipped residents, and Aoife Clifford manages to instil a growing nervousness and sense of mistrust into every page. She rarely takes her foot off the gas, but when the little respites do occur – usually in well thought out, waspish vignettes involving Alex and Denny – they serve as a chink of sunshine in the gathering clouds.
This is the author’s third crime novel and it is a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining book — but beware those sneaky undertows or, like me, you may find yourself reading into the wee small hours!
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CFL Rating: 5 Stars