It’s always exciting to discover another new Australian crime writer, especially when that writer subverts the usual tropes and gives us a plot that goes beyond the police procedural, along with characters that are unexpected and different. In Lapse (Text Publishing 2019), corporate lawyer turned debut author Sarah Thornton presents a fast-paced and tense narrative set in rural Australia and featuring Clementine Jones – an endearing accidental crime solver.
Thornton obviously has plans for this book to be the first in a series – Clem’s backstory is hinted at throughout the novel, but largely remains a mystery until the final pages, and even then we only have the sketchiest idea of what has led her to seek escape in the small country town of Katinga. For escape is what she has done – she has sought refuge in a tiny cottage in the small town and mostly succeeded in keeping to herself. From the beginning of the story, we know she is running away from something or someone in her past, but while the author cleverly gives hints throughout the narrative, even by the closing chapter we feel we are only just beginning to understand Clem’s story. But whatever has happened in her past, Lapse is all about her current circumstances, when she unwittingly gets caught up in a criminal investigation and is forced into helping to solve a crime.
Although Clem mostly hides away with her dog Pocket, she does reluctantly agree to coach the local footy team. She enjoys it and she’s good at it, and the time training the young men keeps her sane while the rest of her life is so hermit-like. The local team, the Cats, haven’t come close to a grand final win for 50 years, so it is surprising when under her guidance, the motley crew of ragtag players actually begins to coalesce and form a tight and ambitious united team. The local footy supporters begin to take notice, and soon Clem is in the spotlight more than she planned or wanted.
But before we know of this, the novel opens with a taut prologue of a young man being threatened by some thugs behind a pub; he is roughed up, burnt with a cigarette and threats are made against his unborn child. It’s a great opening and takes us straight into the action. From there, the novel is told from Clem’s point of view. The end of the season is approaching when Clem’s star player, a young Aboriginal man called Clancy, announces he is quitting the team. He has also been fired from his job, and nobody seems to understand what is going on for him, especially his partner Melissa who is almost ready to give birth to their first child.
As Clem digs into Clancy’s situation, she uncovers secrets that some locals would rather were left unsaid. And her questions lead to others asking questions about her – something she desperately wants to avoid.
The narrative pace of this novel is well controlled as the mystery deepens, the footy finals draw closer, and as Clem unwittingly and unwillingly is pulled into an ever-stickier web of deceit and violence. There’s a bit of everything: financial skulduggery; nepotism; cat and mouse games; covert ops; legal wrangling and of course lots of footy references (you don’t need to know anything about football to enjoy the book, but the details will no doubt thrill the fans; the book certainly conveys the importance of teamwork and how a disparate group of young blokes can be brought together through sport). Thornton produces authentic Aussie dialogue effortlessly and has really got a handle on the idiosyncrasies of small outback towns. Her deft handling of the issue of race is also executed with a sensitive touch. She pulls no punches when depicting the prejudice shown against the Aboriginal people of ‘the Plains’, and the casual racism is uncomfortably familiar.
I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Clementine Jones and I’m keen to see how her personal story develops in future books.