What truly makes an arresting novel?
Answers will likely vary as widely as every reader out there, and their numbers are considerable, but usually most people will agree that you need a gripping narrative, superlatively engaging writing, a beguiling sense of palpable time and place, and a protagonist that captures your heart and your mind and who doesn’t let go until the last eagerly turned page.
The Torrent, the debut novel from sure-to-be-big writer Dinuka McKenzie has all three in spades, ensuring that her rise to the top of the crime writing heap will be swift and well deserved, but what really captures your attention is how good a protagonist she has gifted us in Detective Sergeant Kate Miles who, in the best tradition of crime stories, is one week from a pivotal event in her life.
In her case, its maternity leave to prepare for the birth of her second child – she is married to the lovely, supportive Geoff and has a four-year-old son Archie – and much like Sergeant Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) in 1987’s Lethal Weapon, she simply wants to get the week over and done with and move on to the next brief three-month phase of her life.
That’s doesn’t mean to say she simply wants to coast through the week; no, Kate is dedicated to her job and has worked as close to her maternity leave start date as she can to make a point, pushing back on the expectations of many of the men around her, including her boss Andrew Skinner, chief of the Esserton police station in far northern New South Wales, that now she was pregnant she’d simply have to go onto lighter duties.
“She [Kate] smiled at the memory, examining the puffiness around her eyes in the tiny square of glass. Sleep no longer came easy. Excess flesh padded the dusky curves of her face. Her body felt tight and strained, stretched uncomfortably under her swollen belly.
For a split second, an image of flushed crimson on cotton preyed on her mind; intimate and accusatory. No. She dismissed the unwanted memory, shrugging away the shard of guilt. She had talked to the doctor, she reminded herself. She would be fine. It was only one more week, anyway.” (P. 7)
True to her own self-belief, Kate has shone where others expected her to dim, making it clear to the world around her, the male-centric world around her including new partner Josh Ellis, that she has no intention of played to well-worn gender stereotypes just because some people want her to.
What you come to love about Kate is the way she handles herself every step of the way.
Brilliantly and fearlessly competent and possessed of a keen mind, an observant sensibility and a prescient ability to connect the dots, a gift for any detective handling two cases at once, Kate is endlessly able to do her job to an exemplary degree while simultaneously defending her right to do job at all, especially while pregnant.
She tries to balance her professional life with her personal one, trying to be a good mum to Archie, a present wife to stay-at-home dad Geoff (who also works from home), and a dutiful daughter to her retired policeman dad, but like many of us, she doesn’t always get it right.
And that is why you love Kate – McKenzie has giftedly crafted a protagonist who’s damn good at what she doesn’t but who is also fallibly and relatably human, endearing her to you because while she’s as far from dysfunctional and problematic as you can get – thank the writing gods, McKenzie avoided that particular trope! – she doesn’t always get it completely right.
Mostly, and that’s a necessity given her competency and giftedness as a talented and empathetic police detective, but not always, allowing us to relate fully to a character who like us is aiming high, mostly and impressively getting there, but not always.
Having a protagonist this robustly likeable and good at her job and in a lovingly healthy though not absolutely perfect relationship with her husband, means that The Torrent comes alive with a richly vibrant humanity that informs much of the investigations which underpin the twists and turns of the gripping narrative.
That is this novel’s second great strength – a nuanced but powerfully immersive storyline that focuses on two cases, one a live investigation of a robbery at a McDonald’s in the fictional town of Esserton, south of the very real town of Murwillumbah – at someone from the area, it’s hugely enjoyable to see how well McKenzie evokes the feel of the far north coast of NSW, even in a made-up locale – and the other a review of a closed case that might not be as open-and-shut as first thought.
McKenzie builds up and then unravels these two cases with real artistry, dangling not so much a trail of red herrings, though there are moments when Kate, like anyone, misinterprets who has done what and when to whom, but exquisitely well-arranged clues that lead to a whodunnit that is less about the crimes themselves, though of course, they matter, as the people behind them.
“Kate could feel the conversation slipping away. The stark accuracy of everything Gabby was saying was steadily unpicking the straw house of doubts that she had so painstakingly constructed.
‘Gabby. Please calm down. No one is accusing you of anything. I just wanted to clarify a few things. Just some details about the night. The background.'” (P. 187)
You could well argue that all great crime novels are really studies of humanity in all its many broken and unbroken forms, and if so, then The Torrent, which offers compelling mysteries but also a searingly insightful exploration of what makes people act the way they do, is a masterclass in how to write such a novel.
The Torrent is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word, a story which adroitly and affectingly folds in well-woven cases that need solving but are not as straightforward as first thought, a relatable protagonist who excels at life (but not always; don’t want the rest of us mere mortals to feel too inadequate!), a setting which is as alive and memorably evoked as its inhabitants, and a deep abiding sense of how our humanity can be both a real blessing and life-imperilling curse.
So immensely well-crafted is McKenzie’s first novel that you could be forgiven for thinking she is well into her published career with The Torrent never once feeling like a debut all while radiating an originality and eye for humanity that places in the top echelons of impactful crime novels.
Dinuka McKenzie is definitely someone to look out for with a second novel already set to publish – Taken, continuing the story of Kate Miles, arrives in 2023 with The Torrent containing a one chapter intro to that reads like a worthy and equally compelling follow-up – and no doubt more stories percolating in a mind that doesn’t just deliver brilliantly enticing crime storytelling but which goes into the depths and breadths of the human soul and leave a little bit wiser about life as we know it.