My recent reading had been on the gloomy side so I was looking forward to a rollicking read—the first thing I noticed in ‘Dead Man Switch’ was the initial lack of thrills and spills although they do make an appearance in the final chapters.
Tara Moss hints that protagonist Billie Walker, private inquiry agent, has a wild past but she seems a bit too reined-in for someone with such a pedigree, her father was a former policeman turned PI and she inherited his business. Even the business relationship between Billie and her ex-soldier assistant Samuel Baker seems flat, more diligence than derring-do, and similarly from starchy DI Hank Cooper from Central Police.
Regardless, I launched into ‘Dead Man Switch’ with high hopes and discovered Tara Moss has written a great book for the novice crime reader. Loaded with adjectives and story recapping, this mystery novel is a nice entry point for those graduating from cosy crime into something slightly more improper.
There are a lot of people draping themselves around the 1940s Sydney scene. There’s a knack to letting characters unfold, and piling them all in the front of the book slowed the action for me. First up we meet stoic lift operator John Wilson and then Mrs Lettie Brown of Brown & Co Fine Furs visiting Billie’s agency asking for help to find her missing son Adin. Business is slow, money is tight, Billie takes the case.
Somebody is spying on Billie from afar, while chunks of author research are on show; the stolen generations via quiet Shyla; WWII atrocities; the fur trade; Sydney nightclubs; Billie’s mother Baroness Ella von Hooft and her lady’s maid Alma representing a dying aristocracy—all jostling in a narrative where deployment of the five senses wouldn’t go amiss, and neither would more showing less telling.
Is Billie glamorous? I did not conjure her, as did a Greek café owner, looking like US film star Ava Gardner (above).
Billie is indirectly responsible for four deaths, although she herself does hang by a thread in one dire situation. She breaks the law, a rather humorous chapter involving her zany mother, and she bribes men with an Australian shilling. It’s hard to believe that when they were phased out in 1966 a shilling was worth 10 cents. But in 1940s, one shilling could buy a loaf of bread and a pint of milk so that’s breakfast sorted.
The Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains makes an appearance (below) with a corny filmscript car chase. Was this due to the writing, editing or my longing for a more unpredictable encounter? Billie is allowed to make mistakes to further the plot but one of them was transparent and I was disappointed in her naivety. Oh well, it is crime fiction after all.
With a view to a series, this first book is a light read with tasty clothes and much eyebrow-raising and head tilting. I sincerely hope Book 2 ups-the-ante. In the meantime, you will learn what to do with Fighting Red, the meaning of ‘dead man switch’ and discover what happens to young Adin Brown.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
NOTE This debut Billie Walker Mystery may also be titled ‘The War Widow’ due to Billie’s photojournalist husband missing, presumed dead.
VISIT AUTHOR TARA MOSS FOR A FEAST OF BOOKS AND BACKGROUND TO HER LIFE https://taramoss.com/