Shadow Over Edmund Street by Suzanne Frankham
Early on a dreary, chilly Sunday morning, a woman is found in a car with a catastrophic neck wound. The park where she is discovered sits beneath a cliff lined by some of Auckland’s premium, most expensive homes. Detective Alex Cameron is running the case, and under his direction the investigative team learns the victim is Edwina Biggs, a single middle-aged woman with a history of abandonment by men and a heavily boundaried life.
In the account of young widow Rose Jones, one of her few friends, Edwina was “old Ponsonby”, an “old-style battler” who fought for every cent; lately she had been working in admin at an A&E, a tiring and unglamorous job with antisocial hours. In the overly tight community where Edwina recently swapped a large house for a cottage on Edmund Street, the nexus of her life, a chorus of locals backs up Rose’s assessment: “Her whole life was here . . . Within a few streets . . . Never even had a proper holiday.” She is a figure with blurry edges, seen only through the recollections of others – there are no flashbacks, recovered diaries or any of the usual tricks to bring to life the victim’s voice.
Shadow Over Edmund Street is the debut novel of Suzanne Frankham and, if you’ll forgive the expression, a book of two halves. The first is a sharply written, masterful example of unfolding mystery and steady tension-building, as Detective Cameron and his talented flock are gazumped at repeated turns by the absence of crime-scene evidence and of motive or opportunity among everyone who played even the tiniest role in Edwina’s life.
As murder mysteries go, the set-up is adroit and a pure delight; little in detective fiction is more satisfying than a crack team that really has to start banging heads together to move an investigation into the hot zone. The halfway point or so is that delicious moment when the plot could go any which way, and you are tapping your feet in anticipation.
The second half is solid enough – and there is serious merit in Frankham’s choice to reveal the villain at an atypical point in the narrative – but there is a shift in style and tone, particularly in the characterisation of the villain, that takes the story into something resembling Scooby Doo (“And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!”). Mostly, the villain makes the classic mistake of talking too much, which at moments has the action teetering on the edge of (black) comedy.
Nevertheless, Frankham achieves some considerable depth in exploring the larger obstacles in the life of Edwina and others like her. Anyone who has lived in central Auckland for decades will have observed the relentless pressure of gentrification on proud families and whole demographics, as unseen forces drive up the value and cost of housing and leave people untethered from their multigenerational homes.
Ponsonby is Auckland’s most extreme example of this trend, and Frankham’s light analysis of the bizarre nature of Auckland’s property economy adds an interesting dimension to a conventional whodunit, which in turn expands into a broader-framed mystery as the author draws together strands of the community’s history and shows how they are bound by collective trauma and tightly held secrets.
Story and thematic landscape aside, the novel’s best and most memorable feature is its lead. The taciturn-exterior-disguising-a-deep-well-of-empathy trope does not break new ground among literary detectives, but as both a commentator on and driver of the action, Cameron is a younger, more sober, slightly less battle-scarred version of Michael Connelly’s redoubtable Harry Bosch. Should Frankham wish to make him a recurring character, readers would surely be eager to meet him once more.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Journeys to Words Publishing