Always great to discover another local (Queensland) author with not only a fascinating debut crime novel, but a second already in the works. Author Nikki Mottram uses her background in psychology and child protection to inform the writing of her crime fiction, and her novel Crows Nest (UQP 2023) is a classic in the genre of rural crime noir fiction, combining the compelling setting of a small, outback community and eccentric characters with a plot filled with questions, twists, turns and unexpected paths.

Mottram’s next novel is called Killarney (out soon); I can’t wait to see her work her way through every small town in rural Queensland!

The protagonist in both books is child protection worker Dana Gibson. The opening of Crows Nest sees her fleeing her Sydney home, job and relationship for a contract in the much smaller city of Toowoomba. A recent tragedy in her own life has unmoored her to such an extent that this move feels like the only way to move forward.

Her first on the job house call, to assess the children of Sandra Kirby, results in her unwittingly getting herself offside with not only her new boss but also the local detective. Not a great start. Dana is a city girl at heart and soon realises that rural communities often operate under very different rules.

Not long after that initial visit, both Sandra and her best friend are found shot dead, and as a shocked Dana deals with the implications for Sandra’s children, she is drawn into an investigation of the deaths of the women, which is all the small community can talk about. She forms an unlikely friendship with the grandson of her landlord, Susan, and as young Angus warms to her, she feels her carapace begin to thaw in the face of his vulnerability, wit, curiosity, and intelligence beyond his years. I loved the character of Angus who is delightfully endearing and cheeky. She rather unwisely allows Angus to be drawn into her life more than is appropriate, and while I found this aspect a little implausible, it is balanced by her own recent trauma and her desire to find a safe emotional space wherever she can.

Crows Nest is one of a raft of recent books that features the main protagonist in a role other than a police officer, yet who inadvertently becomes embroiled in the solving of the crime, or the situation surrounding it. As a child protection worker, Dana sees some of the worst aspects of family life and has access to historical details about families that are not available to the average person. As a character, she has a strong desire to not only protect the community’s children, but to unearth untruths and explore lies and secrets when she stumbles upon them.

Inspired by an historical crime, Crows Nest is a fictional tale of rural crime that will sound and feel familiar – close-knit communities, secretive histories, decades-old lies, a propensity for weapons and drugs and abusive situations – explosive material waiting for a match to light it into flame. City woman Dana is pushed to the extreme in her new surroundings. The question is how enmeshed will she become? Will she extricate herself from the trouble brewing in the community of Crows Nest? Or will it consume her?

The ending is a fast-paced, page-turning race to the finish as secrets are revealed, suspects uncovered, red herrings discounted and motives emerge.