Review: Nancy Business by R.W.R. McDonald

Like its predecessor, R.W.R. McDonald’s “Nancy Business” is a masterclass in tonal balance: it’s one part mystery, another part family drama, and these two elements are glazed in a riotous celebration of all things camp and queer. In one scene you’ll be chuckling uproariously at the banter between Uncle Pike and Devon; the next chilled as an explosion rocks the main street of Riverstone; and periodically have your heart warmed by the interplay between young Tippy and her family, who are still reeling from the death of her father one year later.

I presumed — wrongly, it turns out — that following the events of “The Nancys” the investigative trio would reunite in Sydney; bigger city, bigger stakes, I figured. Actually, McDonald demonstrates just how essential his fictional small New Zealand town of Riverstone is as a sandbox for his larger-than-life cast and their eclectic personalities.  Riverestone is a Midsomer-esque municipality ripe with secrets and ne’er-do-wells, one of whom has set off an explosion on the main street, killing three people and destroying the town hall — too close for comfort to where Tippy’s mother works.

It’s an open-and-shut case for the local constabulary, but twelve-year-old Tippy, her Uncle Pike, and his partner Devon aren’t so sure; and they can’t shake the feeling the threat of a second bomber targeting the Riverstone Bridge is real. And so these unconventional detectives start digging, in secret, away from the prying eyes of her mother, while tensions between Pike and Devon fester, and cracks in a relationship Tippy once thought indestructible begin to form. Solving this mystery, she thinks, won’t just save lives — it might save their relationship.

“Nancy Business” is more of the same, certainly — but it’s also a tauter, pacier, funnier and more heartfelt tale, which demonstrates McDonald’s development as a storyteller. It’s a wonderfully entertaining comic caper with genuine emotional stakes that’ll having you ripping through its pages to determine the identity of the perp, and to see how things wind up for Pike and Devon. Lots of writers can create byzantine plots; few are able to create characters we care about so much.

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