One of the many pieces of famous advice that has been given to writers over time is to “write what you know”, which in the case of Ian Austin’s novel The Agency is one of those instances where such advice has resulted in the creation of an intelligent foray into crime fiction.
As an ex-detective, tactical firearms officer, covert surveillance officer and trainer of the British National Crime Squad, Ian Austin certainly possesses an extensive insider’s experience of the business of crime fighting, and the various sociopaths that are encountered along the way. The creation of the novel’s protagonist – Dan Calder, an ex-British policeman newly-immigrated to New Zealand for a fresh start – seems reliant on Austen’s own experience, as are the intricately laid out elements of the crime investigation which provide the framework for the plot.
Despite his intention to retire from crime-solving in favour of working on his novel, Dan Calder becomes drawn into a mystery which has followed him all the way from England to his new home in New Zealand, and in which revolves around a mysterious woman of many names. Victoria Stenning is the chameleon-like founder of “The Agency”, an elusive and top-secret organisation that offers the promise of tailor made assisted suicide for those who no longer wish to live. Leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, Stenning makes her way to New Zealand in the hope of securing a new line of victims for her business. When Stenning looks for potential customers among the databases of people suffering from depression, she locates Calder, and sends an email which will spark an intensive game of cat and mouse.
With his background in analysing minute details in order to paint the larger picture, the author of this novel draws the narrative in small strokes, with the minutiae of moments captured throughout the plot. While at times this has the effect of “over-padding” and unnecessarily prolonging the narrative, it does work suitably well in the places where the logical conclusions of Calder’s thinking, or the “piecing together” of the crime is at the forefront.
The depictions of both Calder and Stenning are refreshingly complex, and subtly undermine any stereotypical or “black and white” depictions of the characters’ motivations and life-experiences. There are many unsuspected developments in the narrative, which keep the novel moving forward and show the author’s delight with his story, and which offer an engaging insight into the way that most people reconcile “darkness” and memory within their every-day lives.
The Agency is Austin’s second self-published novel and the first in a three-part series featuring Dan Calder, which will allow plenty of future opportunity to follow the development of this new voice in New Zealand crime writing and the adventures of his new serial protagonist.