Black River by Matthew Spencer

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is a great crime novel by Matthew Spencer set in contemporary Sydney.

While already investigating two separate brutal murders of young women around the Gladesville area, police are informed that another young woman’s body has been found in the grounds of an elite private boarding school. While there are some similarities between the murders, there are differences. So the question becomes, is this the same killer or a copycat?

While there’s a large cast to keep track off, Spencer develops the story logically and systematically, so it’s relatively easy to know who’s who and what’s going on. Plot wise, it takes the form of following the police investigation, as first one possible person-of-interest is looked at and then another. The main setting is the school and since it’s the Christmas holidays it’s largely deserted with only a few staff on site. It would have made a much more complex case for the Police if the events happened when hundreds of students and staff were around, of course.

The main detectives on the case, DCI Steve O’Neill and DS Rose Riley doggedly pursue every lead they can think of, as the case twists and turns with new developments. They are portrayed sympathetically by Spencer: tough, determined and thorough. There seems little time for a private life for either of them.

The other main character is journalist Adam Bowman, who grew up at the school years earlier. This gives him an edge when the story breaks, as he knows how to get past the police cordon around the school. He gradually builds enough trust with the detectives for them  to use him to publish selected news about the case, in the hope of flushing out the killer.

There is a raft of minor characters that complete the picture. On the Police team, there is Forensic Psychiatrist Wayne Faulkner, DS Annie Tran, young DC Priya Patel and numerous other ranks, while the school staff includes Principal Philip Preston, caretaker Craig Spratt (who helped find the body) and various teachers and their families. A Federal cabinet minister enters the scene with his own agenda and Bowman’s editor, Brandy Alexander, fills a role.

The Faulkner character introduces us to the speculative world of trying to understand and profile serial killers. The bearded doctor muses on various theories that American experts have put forward and offers his own analysis to the Police.

In the book, the school is called Prince Albert and the reader can play detective and, if you know enough Sydney geography, try to identify the actual school. Locations along the Parramatta River and various suburbs are named to help orient you.

Spencer is a dab hand at describing places and people in concise, yet meaning-packed ways.  (Prince Albert) “It was not just any school…It was four hundred acres fenced off in the suburbs – patrician, blazered and slap-bang in the centre of the western sprawl” (6).

The parents were…”Bowral blowhards, bankers and born-to-rule QCs, airline executives who pocketed twenty million a year but couldn’t fly a kite.” (11). Bowman’s local hotel… “The pokie pub (was) a neon billabong of human flotsam.”(4).

One interesting feature of the story is the inside look we get of how journalists work and the sad decline of major newsrooms over time. The race to be on-line first drives much of the industry and the occasional political interference doesn’t help. Bowman is something of a burnt-out case, who is getting some overdue credit for his skills. His colleague “Beat-up” Benny is a morals-free, shabby figure, who typifies a less appealing side of journalism.

Spencer includes references to Sherlock Holmes (with the curious incident of the dog in the night) and The Silence of the Lambs. He has his female detective sergeant search an isolated, dangerous place alone. It’s well done as well. Indeed, Spencer ties off the loose ends most satisfactorily.

A sign of a good read is its freshness when read a second time and Black River achieves this. I would certainly recommend it to murder/ mystery fans for its engaging, well-paced story and range of interesting characters. It also has a distinctly Australian vibe.

Matthew Spencer was born in Parramatta and lived with his sister and parents, who were teachers, on the 320 acre campus of a boys’ boarding school. He has an Honours Degree in English Literature from Sydney University and was a journalist at The Australian newspaper for twenty years. He lives in Sydney with his wife Ritu Gupta and their three children. Black River is his first novel.

Black River


by Matthew Spencer

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 176106 618 4

$32.99; 360pp


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