Review: Black River by Matthew Spencer

Regulars of this parish I call my blog will know I’m always harping on about my love for police procedurals and my desire for them to be (more) prevalent in the burgeoning Australian crime writing field. Well, lo and behold, Matthew Spencer has answered my call: his debut, “Black River” reads like a Sydney-based Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel, with all the mechanics down pat. Which means it’s very much my cup of tea. And, coincidentally, its primary setting — an independent boys’ boarding school in North Parramatta — is inspired by my (and the author’s) old school; so I had fun identifying specific locations from the campus I spent nine years exploring. (Well, okay — sitting in the library…)

In “Black River” there’s a serial killer on the loose in Sydney, dubbed BMK — the Blue Moon Killer — whose murderous spree is geographically connected to the Parramatta River. The NSW Police Department has established Task Force Satyr to hunt BMK, with Detectives O’Neil and Riley at the tip of its spear. When a young woman is found murdered in a residence on the grounds of Prince Albert College, there’s enough evidence to suggest BMK is the perp; and so the case is absorbed into the task force.

Former student and resident of the college, Adam Bowman is now an (unexceptional, but diligent workhorse) journalist for The National, charged with covering the school murder. In doing so he’s forced to confront his traumatic past — and becomes more embroiled with the cops’ machinations to catch the killer than he ever could’ve anticipated.

This is good, pacy entertainment. Spencer masterfully builds his plot, and his detective’s case, brick by brick, ratcheting tension superbly until its nail-biting climax. Protagonists, suspects and people of interest are sketched hurriedly but precisely; his prose seemingly honed at the school of Elmore Leonard who knew better than anyone to leave out what readers skip. There’s a lot left unsaid about Riley and O’Neil; plenty to explore in sequels I can’t wait to read.

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