What a killer premise!

An injured man stumbles into a remote Australian police station. He has fought his way through the wilderness after being drugged and kidnapped, somehow managing to escape from a cabin in the mountains where he was chained. His name is Gabriel and he is fleeing a man called Heath, who threatened to make him victim 55.

Just as Police Sergeant Jenkins launches a manhunt, Heath is walked into the police station with a story to tell. He has fought his way through the wilderness after being drugged, kidnapped and escaping from a cabin in the mountains where he was chained. His name is Heath and he is fleeing a man called Gabriel, who threatened to make him victim 55.

Feeing a sense of deja vu?

Both victims become suspects, but only one of them is telling the truth. One potential victim, one dangerous serial killer, but who is telling the truth?

What’s it about?

Well, obviously, the local police force, more used to dealing with the odd drunken fistfight than any serious crime, have to discover the real killer, but there’s more to this increasingly dark tale than that.

Alongside the main plot, Delargy includes flashbacks that tell the story of a search for a missing person, conducted by the local police 10 years earlier. This raises tricky ethical and emotional questions for two friends and newly minted police officers, Chandler Jenkins and Mitch Andrews. At what point do you accept that a missing person has been consumed by the Australian outback? How do you persuade a distraught family that it’s time to give up the search, to grieve, when there’s still so much vast landscape to explore that their loved one might be lying, dead or injured, just a few dusty kilometres away?

Ten years later, Chandler reluctantly calls Mitch – now an Inspector in the city – to let him know that his local officers appear to have apprehended a serial killer. Rather than wondering why their friendship fell apart, I found myself wondering how it ever really developed when they seem so different. Mitch is all ambition, politics and arrogant conviction, while Chandler is a family man, content to look after his village station and ready to doubt his own instincts when it comes to deciding which of their victims is telling the truth. Then again, when it matters, when he’s tested, it’s clear Chandler has his own darkness in his soul…

What’s it like?

A slow burn with a twist and a sting in its tail.

I really wasn’t particularly interested in the relationship between Mitch and Chandler, especially as it developed to involve another face from their past. I found this implausible and unnecessary, but it didn’t overly detract from the story.

I did want Chandler to listen more to his instincts. Which of the suspects had an opportunity to commit a significant act? When he thought some particular characters might be at risk from the killer, why didn’t he try to get them police protection? Of course, had he listened to his instincts, the ending would have been very different…

The narrative is brilliantly structured so that when we have to move beyond the opening hook to deal with the actual killer, Delargy creates a chilling scenario that allows the whole of the plot to come together. My only complaint is that the serial killer himself was a bit unconvincing in one key respect, but I can see that his actions do fit with his backstory. I can see how it’s meant to work, it just didn’t quite work for me.

Final thoughts

A brilliantly intriguing premise transforms into a chilling tale of loss.

I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the abrupt ending, but I liked it. It is sudden but I don’t find it ambiguous at all; it’s clear to me what happened, and I don’t need the details. I feel that I could confidently predict a limited range of possible outcomes after that final sentence, given the characters, the final few paragraphs and the flashback narrative. The fact that Delargy doesn’t give readers the ‘closure’ some have expressed a desire for seems to me a recognition that we don’t need to see those subsequent moments; the preceding chapters have shown us all we need to know.

In short, an excellent debut from Delargy and I look forward to reading his second book, ‘Vanished’, which is also set in the outback.

James Delargy,
2019, Simon and Schuster, paperback