Just breathlessly finished Taken (Harper Collins 2023) by Australian crime author Dinuka McKenzie, the second novel featuring Detective Sergeant Kate Miles. What a follow-up to her debut! This book focuses on any parent’s worst nightmare – a missing child – while also immersing readers more fully into the personal lives of the main characters. Taken is tightly plotted, surprising, tense, moving, reflective and full of the angst of parenthood.
McKenzie’s debut, The Torrent, finished with a very pregnant Kate (already mother to toddler Archie) severely injured after a harrowing incident. Taken opens some months later, and while much has changed in Kate’s world, some things have become more ingrained and difficult. She is struggling with her return from maternity leave to policing while navigating motherhood a second time and McKenzie depicts with pinpoint accuracy the minefield of guilt and shame mothers feel, whether they are in paid employment or not – am I giving the baby enough attention? Do I have enough milk? Is bottle-feeding ok? Am I sacrificing family time for work time, or vice versa, am I neglecting work because of my family? Do I expect too much of my partner? Am I being unreasonable? Why can’t anyone understand how difficult it is to parent and work and be a good partner and friend and daughter? What if I fail? What if I drop one of the many balls I am juggling? What role model am I for my children? These issues are explored with nuance, emotion and compassion.
Kate’s relationship with her father, a former policeman, is also unpacked further in this second book, not only their personal difficulties, but other professional problems that may reflect poorly on Kate. The reader must wait until the very end of the novel to find out what exactly is going on with Gray, and whether the two will reconnect and resolve the important issues.
These relationships, between Kate and her father, between Kate and her husband Geoff (poor, long-suffering Geoff!), between Kate and her colleague Josh, and Kate and her boss, Skinner, were all introduced in the first book but are teased out in Taken, expanded, with some of the gaps and backstory and history filled in. We feel that we get to know all of these people, not just Kate, a lot better in this novel, yet are also left with the feeling that there is so much more to be revealed.
But of course this is foremost a crime story (albeit one with a layered and developed structure of interpersonal relationships). And the crime is unthinkable: a baby girl missing. There in her bassinet one minute, simply disappeared the next. Over the course of the week during which Taken is set (and I love that McKenzie tongue-in-cheek makes reference to one of the characters reading a crime novel where the ‘police solve the crime in a week’!), suspects spring from everywhere. Baby Sienna’s mother, Elissa, is depressed and downtrodden. Sienna’s father, Aaron, can’t account for his movements over the critical time period. Elissa’s former partner is a violent man with a dangerous past and possibly a grudge and Elissa’s mother is controlling and protective. Many others connected to both Aaron and Elissa emerge as persons of interest during the investigation. The police unit is divided about which suspect to prioritise, which only dilutes the resources to investigate any one person. So many people could have committed this crime that Kate is stymied at every turn by conflicting evidence, emerging motives and incorrect assumptions.
One very clever structural device used by McKenzie is the italicised voice of an unknown person, which appears intermittently during the story. While this is not a new idea, the way McKenzie utilises it is unusual. Certainly, by the end of the story, I had to go back to the beginning and reread these sections to understand quite how easily she had misled me and how complex the narrative is; some of the assumptions I had made were erroneous, and some paths I had trodden were in completely the wrong direction. Exactly the makings of a great crime novel! Readers will reach the end and marvel at McKenzie’s skills of misdirection, distraction and diversion.
The missing child is naturally very close to the bone for Kate Miles, who has a new baby herself. This makes this case personal, and we discover it’s political too. The bureaucracy, corruption and favouritism of the police force is alive and well, as is the eagerness to use Kate as a prime example of ‘diverse policing’, something she is annoyed by but tolerates.
McKenzie is a fine writer and her instinct for what makes a good crime novel is well tuned. The plot of Taken will keep you guessing, and the background setting of relationships and family will feel authentic and familiar.