Book review: Taken by Dinuka McKenzie

(courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

There can surely no greater terror for a parent than coming out one day to find that someone has stolen your child right from under your nose in your very own home.

This is exactly the kind of diabolically awful scenario which confronts one young parent in Dinuka McKenzie’s gripping and emotionally intense second novel Taken – her stellar debut novel, The Torrent, is also definitely worth a TBR-busting immediate read – in which we witness the return of everyone’s new favourite feet-of-clay detective, Detective Sergeant Kate Miles, who is once again doing her best to juggle motherhood and a demanding career while solving a fairly emotionally intense crime.

Set on the Far North Coast region of NSW, specifically around the Murwillumbah/Tweed area, which for non-residents or those not familiar with the area is about an hour south of Australia’s famous Gold Coast tourist hotspot, Taken winningly ticks many of the boxes you’d expect from a crime novel worth its mystery solving salt.

The talented detective struggling against a sometimes corrupt system to bring justice to bear is accounted for, as is a plethora of suspects, a net full of deliciously possible red herrings and a dramatic standoff with the actual killer which only the detective has been able to pinpoint.

The brilliance of McKenzie’s writing is that she takes these and many other well-worn tropes and she weaves something spellbindingly and compulsively original out of them.

Kate turned and faced Mrs Ricci, who was on her feet once more and straining to see what Kate held in her hand.

Placing the evidence bag on the table in front of the women, Kate watched as Mrs Ricci drained of colour, and her mother looked away.

Taken is about as far from a hackneyed, uninspired member of the crime thriller genre as you could hope for.

Much of that can be slated to a writer who is able to infuse some genuinely world-weary humanity into proceedings without terminally (and yes, that word was deliberately chosen) weighing down the narrative.

In fact, so well does McKenzie blend Kate’s many existential challenges from a marriage under pressure, kids who love her but barely see her, a father who may be under suspicion of something less than legal simply by association, and a colleague who’s out to sabotage her career, while also solving an enticingly rich and emotionally meaningful mystery, that Taken fairly sings its way through a story that never once lets up its full speed ahead, highly readable momentum.

It’s a skillful blend of sleuthing and grounded humanity that feels fresh and original, driven by the fact that everything about Kate’s personal and professional lives feels absolutely, affectingly authentic.

She is a wholly believable and unyieldingly accessible protagonist who may be solving a mystery according to time-honoured tradition, and yes McKenzie is smart enough to make an appealingly self-deprecatory accession to the fact that her novel is part of a slightly unbelievable and narratively convenient genre where justice is swift and neatly arrived at, but who is also trying to get through life as best she can like so many of the people reading about her.

(image courtesy

It’s this highly relatable humanity that drives so much of Taken, which will have you turning pages and staying up way past your bedtime, not simply because the mystery unfolds so damn well, but because Kate is worth spending considerable amounts of valuable time with.

She is as rich and fulsome a crime novel protagonist as you’re ever likely to find, and its her flaws, frailties and missteps, along with her inarguable skill as a top flight detective who knocks it out of the park even in the face of sabotaging colleagues and villainous suspects, that so endear her to you and infuse Taken with so much compulsive readability.

Sure you want to know whodunnit, and you’re enthralled by the dark goings on in a town in the heart of tropical paradise, and McKenzie absolutely delivers on all those fronts, but all that only matters as much as it does because Kate is such an arresting figure at the heart of it.

If you think about it, it’s always the central mystery solving figure that makes or breaks these sorts of stories.

Agatha Christie and her legion of talented successors all knew it or know it, and McKenzie clearly has taken it to heart too, making us care so much because we want to see Kate getting the upper hand on a slew of professional and personal challenges and win against forces both nefarious and clumsily human.

She [Kate] glanced towards the house, wondering if Allison was behind one of the shaded panes and had seen her confrontation with Josh. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it would make her trust Kate. Allison had wanted to speak. Kate was sure of it. The woman was carrying something that she wanted to unburden; she just needed to be given the chance.

She took a deep breath and headed back to the house.

Taken is that rare breed among crime novels that demonstrates from the get-go that it understands that while mysteries are beguiling and that we all have a craving for justice to be served in a world with precious little of it, we want it to be done by someone worth a damn.

Kate is very much that person and as she battles recalcitrant suspects, dubious witnesses, a media looking for sensationalism above all and a boss who seems ready to undercut because she dares to veer form the complaint detective narrative he likes, you are rooting for her all the way.

It’s this seamless bringing together of the darkness of the crime and broken human souls with the light and possibility and the love and connection, however frayed and flawed it might be, of being human, that brings Taken even more alive than it already is.

You are drawn in from page one and kept there because there’s a beating heart of human truthfulness at work every step of the way, enhanced by the fact that McKenzie not only understands the complex contradictions of the human condition but that she knows how to write about them superbly and enticingly well.

We all want the great mysteries life solved, and while that isn’t always possible in the real world – let’s face it, it is almost never is which means you either accept the open-ended nature of life and make your peace or you live in a messy resentment of its lack of neat bow-tying – it is eminently achievable in crime novels of the blisteringly good quality of Taken which delivers up a crime, its solution and the rich humanity at its heart, doing so in such a way that you will fly through this book, not just because you need to know why and how things happened the way they did, and who was their architect, but because you love and adore Kate and want to see her emerge triumphant above all at the end of it.

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