An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire: A crime novel for those who don’t read crime

Cover imageI spotted An Isolated Incident on Twitter and liked the look of it but thought it might be too much of a crime novel for me. My appetite for crime fiction is more than sated by TV. Then it turned up in the post, sent by Eye Books the tiny publisher who’ve released it here in the UK, which sealed the reviewing deal for me. Set in smalltown Australia, Emily Maguire’s Stella Prize shortlisted novel begins with the discovery of a body but it’s about very much more than that.

Chris’ beloved sister Bella has been missing for almost two days when she opens the door to a young policeman, confirming her worst fears. Both sisters were brought up by their drunken mother with a string of violent boyfriends, a grim childhood from which Bella emerged unscathed. Whereas Chris earns a little on the side, taking truckers home from the pub where she works, Bella’s reputation is pristine. Chris is soon besieged by media and rubberneckers, held at arms’ length by her protective ex-husband. One young crime reporter arrives ahead of the media posse, desperate to flee an unhappy break-up. May sniffs around Strathdee, picking up snippets of gossip and weaving them into a narrative that fits her angle. As the month between the discovery of Bella’s corpse and the trial of her murderer wears on, May becomes closely involved with Chris, at first determined to nail an exclusive interview then offering support as Chris’ fragile mental state unravels. By the time the novel ends, May will have understood that what may have been one case amongst many for her has devastated Chris’ life.

Set against the backdrop of a misogynistic society in which violence against women is almost routinely perpetrated, Maguire’s novel explores the effects of a murder on the family of the victim and the community in which they live, and it’s riveting. Both Chris and May are strong, expertly drawn characters. Intense pressure from the media, opportunists keen to exploit Bella’s case as part of their cause and plain old smalltown gossip is stitched through Chris’ first-person narrative balanced by May’s investigations and examination of her own motives. Maguire neatly avoids the prurient, reflecting what’s happened to Bella through Chris’ shock and grief rather than feeding her readers graphic details. Apparently, An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Prize for Best Crime Novel in Maguire’s native Australia but it seems to me to be much more than a crime novel, putting a mirror up to society and finding it sadly lacking rather than simply solving a murder. Come to think of it that’s what the best TV crime drama does. Maybe I should explore the genre a little more.

29 thoughts on “An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire: A crime novel for those who don’t read crime”

  1. This does sound very interesting, though I’m not keen on modern crime. It’s good to see a writer paying attention to the impact of a terrible crime on someone rather than just writing about solving a case. It is that aspect which could persuade me to read it

    1. It’s not a genre that appeals to me either, Ali, but Maguire’s novel is a bit like The Killing in that it examines the crime in terms of the victim’s family and their community rather than concentrating on the solution to the crime. It’s very powerful.

  2. The mirror-up-to-society thing is why I love Tana French so much. You never get the impression that the murders she writes about are routine, for anyone.

      1. Almost all of them are fantastic, but The Likeness and The Secret Place are two of my favourites. In the Woods (the first one, though they don’t need to be read in order) and Broken Harbour are also marvelous; Faithful Place didn’t really do it for me, though, so don’t start with that one. The Trespasser is also fine but nowhere near what French can achieve at her best.

  3. Like Elle, I think your holding-a-mirror-up-to-society comment is very pertinent. It’s one of the things I like about some of the vintage crime novels I read, especially those which explore the moral dynamics at play. The psychological elements are another attraction for me, hence my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s work. Anyway, this does sound a cut above the typical modern crime novel, particularly given the focus on the family and wider community. We’ll turn you into a crime reader yet, Susan!

    As a slight aside, have you seen the Australian crime movie, Mystery Road? It isn’t in quite the same vein as this novel – but even so, you might want to take a look.

    1. You never know! As you’ve mentioned Patricia Highsmith I wondered if you’d heard about Switzerland which I saw recently. An excellent, very Highsmithesque piece of drama. And thanks for the movie tip. I’ll look that up.

  4. Well have to agree to disagree on this one – I didn’t care for it much at all (I think I read it as part of my Stella Prize longlist reading??). I think my reservations were around the fact that the story very much mirrored a real case in Melbourne – which is of course fine but it all felt a little grubby to me and left me wondering if Macguire had done the very thing she was disapproving of in her own novel!

    1. You’re the second Australian to express ambivalance here, Kate. The other was Kim from Reading Matters, possibly for the same reason. It does shed a different light on the novel. Thanks for letting me know.

  5. You’ve hit the nail on the head – that’s why I love crime fiction, especially set in different countries around the world. It gives you such an insight into society and all its mores and ills. (I guess the social anthropologist in me comes to the fore!)

  6. I’m not a big crime reader, but if it’s doing more than presenting violence as entertainment then I’m interested! This does sound like it has plenty to say, and the crime is a means rather than an end.

  7. I was struggling to get started on an article about why I love crime fiction when I read your comment about holding a mirror up to society. It made me realise that to me, this is what crime fiction is about, but that others may have different ideas.

    It gave me the angle I needed so thanks for the inspiration!

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