Author:   Vanda Symon
Publisher:   Penguin
Copyright:   2008
ISBN:   9780143008347
No of Pages:   312

Book Synopsis:

Death is stalking the southern South Island. And what role does the visiting Darling Brothers Circus have to play?

Sam Shephard is on the bottom rung of detective training in Dunedin, and her boss makes sure she knows it. She gets involved in her first homicide investigation there when a university student is murdered in the Botanic Gardens. Sam soon discovers this is not an isolated incident. There is the chilling prospect of a predator loose in Dunedin.

Is the murdered in the circus or closer to home?

Sam must find out who's running the show.

Book Review:

THE RINGMASTER is the second in the Sam Shephard series from NZ author Vanda Symon.  Sam has moved to Dunedin, is in detective training when the body of a young university student is found in the Botanic Gardens.  In Sam's world it goes without saying that nothing is ever going to be straightforward, and once the possibility that this murder isn't a solitary event, the connection between murders all over the Southern South Island of New Zealand and a local travelling circus becomes a distinct possibility.

Which, as it does, leads to a sympathetic relationship with an elephant.  Which ends badly.  So maybe I should get this out of the way up front, things for the elephant don't end well at all, and  Sam is just as upset about this outcome as the reader is going to be.  But that isn't going to help readers who are completely opposed to anything bad happening to animals.  For me, the events, whilst distressing, really demonstrated how sometimes the life of the police isn't a pleasant one.  But getting back to the murder investigation, there are aspects of Sam's personality (and personal life) that have come forward from the first book - OVERKILL.  There are also aspects of the investigation that remain the same.  Sam plays a solo hand again, partly because she's sidelined in a major way by the same bosses that tried to sideline her in the first book, and partly because Sam's much more comfortable out on the edge, playing a solo hand.  It's probably that sense that somewhere off in the rough is exactly where Sam is at her best that stops any sense of cliché or convenient repetition.  That and the humour, but more on that later.

As with OVERKILL, the great strength in THE RINGMASTER is the characterisations.  Using the same tricks as the earlier book, Sam really is easy to identify with.  Her own self doubt, her willingness to feel real emotion, make mistakes, beat herself up, be jealous, angry, daft as a brush, brave, sad and rather clever all at the same time.

There is another great supporting set of characters in THE RINGMASTER.  Maggie remains, housemate, and best friend, Sam's touchstone.  They are now both living in Dunedin, boarding with relatives of Maggie's, their domestic situation seemingly sorted, Sam's emotional life is still a massive rollercoaster.  There is a love interest bought forward from the first book, although it takes quite a while for Sam to twig that this is a love interest, and not just some bloke hanging around being annoying.  There is also a great sense of place and sensibility.  The book doesn't read as a travelogue, but you really do come away from it with an unscratchable itch to see that place, meet those people.

As with the first book, the humour is pitched perfectly.  At no stage is the reader allowed to forget that there are victims involved in any series of murders, there are unwitting involvements that impact everyone as a result, and there are the guilty that have their own, often inexplicable reasons, for doing what they do.  CONTAINMENT is the next book in the series, followed by recent release BOUND.  Do you think it's too much to hope that now that I'm revisiting the first three books, and have the fourth to look forward to, that a fifth isn't that far away?

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