What an absolute delight to plunge back into the life of Tippy Chan, amateur sleuth, in R.W.R. McDonald’s second novel Nancy Business (Allen and Unwin 2021). This is a follow-up to the very popular The Nancys, where we were first introduced to Tippy and her kooky but extremely likeable family and friends. This genre-bending story (cosy queer crime?) is a rollercoaster of thoroughly gripping entertainment – a family mystery wrapped up with an horrific crime told with humour and grace through the voice of 12-year-old Tippy, a unique young girl with attitude, smarts, wisdom beyond her years and overflowing with compassion.
If you are looking for a book that is clever, thrilling and well-paced, with a mystery to be solved (perhaps even more than one), but also a story that is warm and tender and a fantastic example of great LGBTQIA+ literature / commercial fiction, then this is one I highly recommend. Nancy Business could be read as a standalone but why would you want to when you could first immerse yourself in The Nancys and really get to know the characters that inhabit Tippy’s world?
The story, set in New Zealand, begins with a devastating and fatal explosion that destroys the local Riverstone Town Hall. It’s just the kind of serious crime and curious mystery that the delightfully innocent and vulnerable Tippy is keen to investigate. But of course she must get the old crew back together – her quirky, very funny and over-the-top gay Uncle Pike and his partner Devon. Chaos ensues as Tippy must deal with the ongoing uncertainty over her father’s death, while Pike must cope with jealousies and tensions from old lovers, and poor Devon is put upon to survive the very worst of bad taste, including awful striped mats, bad haircuts, the horror of the colour green, a desperate lack of sparkles, the tedious job of being the only one of taste in the village, and the onerous task of renovating a house where a grisly murder took place only months earlier. (That head in the freezer really was the last straw…)
Not only are we treated to the investigation of another terrible crime and its aftermath (is there a second bomb planned?) but we are immersed more deeply into the rich and layered life of Tippy and the other characters, learning new details about them and – if it’s possible – loving them even more.
The writing is gripping, with razor-sharp dialogue and some extremely witty lines delivered sometimes innocently by Tippy (but adult readers will twig to the double-entendres) or spoken flamboyantly by Devon or Pike (as readers we get these comments immediately but they sometimes go over the head of naïve young Tippy). It’s so refreshing and unusual to find a book with such a young protagonist but that nevertheless balances a fine line of bawdy and outrageous humour. The heart and poignancy of the story is tender. The family dynamics and tensions are realistic. The characteristics of the small town and the people in it – their relationships, petty conflicts, ambitions, greed, and general misbehaviour – are written with a keen eye for human nature and the absurdities of our actions. Nancy Business and its predecessor The Nancys are entirely original in style, voice and tone. This is a light-hearted and sweet book that is great fun – I can’t think of anyone it wouldn’t appeal to; the perfect antidote for these Covid times. A book bursting with diversity in a way that feels entirely natural. From a dog called Fabulon to the grief of loss, from grossly inappropriate but hilariously funny language to mass murderers, from makeovers and milkshakes to trauma and secrets and dangerous drugs, this novel somehow manages to combine all of these disparate issues, bringing them together to produce a tale of wit, wisdom, family, friendship, detection and fabulousness.