Australian country towns are sometimes (undeniably and soberingly) hotbeds of corruption among the powerful and influential, weighed down by recalcitrant crime waves and host to a plethora of murky, explosive secrets. These towns can appear to be utopic havens of peace and quiet to outsiders, yet be an unrelenting and sordid nightmare to reside in, and even visit. Such fervent truths are superbly illuminated in stellar Australian author, Nikki Mottram’s, phenomenal debut novel, Crows Nest – an edge-of-your-seat and heart-racing crime fiction read.
Set in the seemingly picture-perfect Queensland town of Toowoomba and the ostensibly laid-back and unjaded adjacent small town of Crows Nest in 1996, this resoundingly eerie and superbly written story is one to read in between experiencing beauty in the world, such as literally going into the garden and ‘smelling the roses’. That is, there is an underlying and pervasive darkness in the pages of Crows Nest. Yet this is interspersed with, at-times in the novel, redemptive healing and growth.
Our central character is the outwardly feisty, yet inwardly fragile (and nursing a broken heart), Dana Gibson. Dana, forty-two, has recently left her husband, Hugh, in Sydney to live for a period of time in Toowoomba and work in Toowoomba and Crows Nest as a child protection worker with the Department of Families.
On her first day on the job in Queensland, Dana is sent to evaluate Sandra Kirby’s (twenty-nine) apparently physically at-risk children, Billly-Violet (nine) and baby Rubi. As Dana’s new boss Helen informs her of the Kirby family, “This family’s been on the books as long as I can remember……There’s been intergenerational abuse in that family for forty years”. Helen ‘gives’ Dana the Kirby family ‘portfolio’ for Dana to “work this case and make things better”.
Sandra’s best friend Debbie, a kindergarten teacher, is at the house when Dana and fellow child protection worker, Keely, visit the Kirby residence. Debbie is forever over at Sandra’s place it seems. Living with Sandra, her husband, Paul, and Billy-Violet and Rubi is Sandra’s teenage half-sister, Chrystal (sixteen). Sandra’s other teenage half-sister, Alisha, was living with Sandra and family, but has since moved out.
A piece of Dana’s heart is forever missing, as she has lost her eight-month-old son Oscar to cot death. Dana is still in shock and egregiously traumatised by Oscar’s passing, the passage of time having done little to assuage her inner pain. Oscar was Dana and Hugh’s only child.
Dana soon gets offside Constable Connor Morgan in Crows Nest, before linking up with him romantically, for a short time. Senior Sergeant Ian Steinmann from Crows Nest Police Station is also a driven adversary of Dana’s. If Connor is goofy in nature, Ian Steinmann is derivatively not as he seems.
When Sandra and Debbie are found murdered in the Kirby’s motor car at a place called Rocky Creek in Crows Nest, theories abound as to who and what caused the friends’ premature demise. When the case is deemed a ‘murder-suicide’ (the murder caused by Debbie) by the police, the case is forever closed. Or is it?
Dana holds onto the case like an unyielding dog with a bone. She is sure the police have botched the case, and that there are darker forces at play in this seemingly naive part of the world.
What actually transpired in the Sandra/Debbie case in the early hours one Tuesday? Is it indeed a murder-suicide or is there a persons or people who the police should be looking at that they haven’t considered?
Is Dana becoming dangerously obsessed with the case, partly fueled by her grief over Oscar, or is she just ‘living in reality’ and seeing things others don’t?
Who is the young boy who is constantly letting himself into Dana’s house in Toowoomba?
Can Dana ever reconcile with Hugh, whom she has left so abruptly at Castlecrag in Sydney, and can they ever confront and deal with their oceanic and seismic grief over Oscar?
Nikki has written a crime novel of searing intelligence, insight and wisdom. I could ‘see’ the towns of Crows Nest and Toowoomba and their eclectic milieu of townsfolk (some noble, others dubiously motivated) as I read page after page of mysterious locales and persons.
Bravo Nikki! It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel, such is the superlative standard of Crows Nest. It is notably inspiring that Nikki wrote most of this novel at the kitchen table after her children had gone to sleep at night. I loved Crows Nest, and can’t wait to read what Nikki writes next.
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