I’m not a crime reader as most of you know, and in fact most of the crime novels I’ve read here have been review copies sent to me. Caroline de Costa’s Double madness is one of these. I accepted it for a couple of reasons. It’s a debut novel by a doctor, indeed a professor of Medicine at the James Cook University in Cairns, who has been shortlisted for a nonfiction work in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. And it is set in beautiful far north Queensland, my home state.
Not being an expert in crime writing, I can’t really compare it with other novels, but I’d say it’s in the sub-genre known as police procedural. According to Wikipedia, in police procedurals the detective is a police officer and the story depicts the activities of the police investigating the crime. Tick. However, Wikipedia also says that in police procedurals the perpetrator is often known to the reader, but this is not the case here, and that the novel will often deal with a number of unrelated crimes, which is also not the case here, though several references are made to one other crime. None of this matters, really thought, does it? Categories can be helpful in analysis, but in the end what counts is the work itself. I was just intrigued.
Double madness opens with the victim’s body being found, by accident, in a secluded part of the north Queensland rainforest, by a doctor and his wife who are driving home the scenic way. Finding the body is, I presume, a pretty traditional opening for a crime novel of this sort. The dating, like the setting, is also precise – 27 February 2011, which is three weeks after the category-5 Cyclone Yasi hit northern Queensland, causing significant destruction. The novel is told in almost straight chronology, with each chapter titled by a date, the last being 17 March 2011. Early in the novel, though, there are a few flashback chapters – mostly to 2009 – which flesh out a few characters for us.
Our main detective is the 30-something now-single mother, Cass Diamond. She’s of indigenous Australian background. Ah, so we have a non-indigenous writer, as far as I know anyhow, writing an indigenous character. You may remember discussions we’ve had here on this topic. I’ve quoted writer Margaret Merrilees, “To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie”. De Costa is writing about Far North Queensland, a place with a significant indigenous population, where it would indeed be poor form to ignore indigenous characters. My assessment is that de Costa has done it well. Cass makes some references to her indigeneity, and to some of the challenges she faces, but this is not her defining characteristic in the novel. She is “just” another police officer, and is defined as much, if not more, by being a single mother whose “fridge was a temple consecrated to convenience foods”. In other words, she’s in that band of job-jolly detectives who struggle to keep their personal life going, though Cass does a better job than most (that I’ve seen on TV anyhow). She does, for a start, seem to have a good relationship with her teenage son. Moreover, she’s not drunk, middle-aged or unduly cynical – yet, anyhow!
Back now, to the plot. Tucked into the copy sent to me was a slip of paper containing a short interview with the writer by reviewer Fiona Hardy. De Costa tells Hardy that she had “for some time been interested in the concept of folie-à-deux [share psychosis]”. Folie-à-deux translates as double madness – hence the book’s title. De Costa also tells Hardy, when describing the sort of detective she has created, that she has to write what she knows. And she knows medicine. Consequently, not only does the investigation and resolution of the crime involve some medical knowledge, but the story is set largely amongst the community’s medical fraternity. In other words, the good doctors of Cairns have been getting up to a bit of mischief with our victim, so when the murder is committed they find themselves in the frame. They are not, however, the only ones. There be a husband, and sons, and sundry other possibilities. All I’ll say is this is a tricky plot with a goodly dose of red herrings. For more, you’ll have to read the book.
I wouldn’t call Double madness a ground-breaking or particularly innovative detective novel, but it’s an enjoyable read. The writing is clear and straightforward, keeping to the point and moving along at a fair pace. There’s no unnecessary description, but where it is needed, such as to describe the bush or, say, a doctor’s experience of working through a cyclone, it feels real and authentic. Hardy, in her interview, notes that the cyclone Yasi makes an effective metaphor for the havoc wrought by the victim, Odile Janvier, on those around her. She’s right, it does.
When I read fiction, as I’ve said before, I look for some underlying messages or themes or issues being explored because I like my reading to further my understanding of humanity. Double madness is not, in this sense, a deep or enquiring book, but it is quietly subversive in the way it handles race and gender. Its indigenous characters are not defined by their indigeneity, and women detectives and medicos play important, but accepted and unremarked, roles in the investigation and resolution of the crime. Moreover, while the murder victim is a woman, she is far from the norm of murdered women victimhood. Good on de Costa.
So, if you are looking for a new crime author for your crime fan friends this Christmas – because yes, it’s that time of year again – then Double madness is well worth putting on your list.
(Review copy courtesy Margaret River Press)