Faceless by Vanda Symon – a clever thriller with a real feeling for character and the build up of suspense

Faceless by Vanda Symon

A thriller told from up to four points of view, this is an intense and powerful story of determination in the face of impossible odds. Featuring homeless characters in a city in New Zealand, it is written with a sparse prose that does not waste time on descriptions, feelings and emotions which will emerge from the characters’ actions and reactions. This is a book which shows how desperate people can react when circumstances demand – and a little of how past hurts can power the present. Each switch of character is clear, though they pick up the story at slightly different times, as the desperation rises for more than one person. It is a mystery that works out brilliantly as various people know only a little of what is going on – and only the author and reader can put it together as time carries on and tension rises. In a way it is a masterclass in contemporary writing, a well balanced story of crime and investigation starting from very different places than normal. I found it an enthralling novel, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it. 

 Bradley is an ordinary man with family pressures and a job which demands more than he can possibly manage. A sudden impulse sends him into a nightmare that changes lives.  Not that it is solely his nightmare by any stretch of imagination – his descent is a painful revelation in every way. Billy is a young woman who is trying to surmount her situation with art, who descends into a danger that she could never have imagined. Her torment is messy and painful, and calls on all her inner resources. Her previous experience as a homeless woman has not always been pleasant, yet there was light and in Max a friend and companion who cared. Max has descended about as low as it is possible to go, barely surviving as a wreck of the man he once was, shocking in his physical state and attitude to himself. Only his friendship with Billy has kept him going, and when she suddenly disappears he cannot rest, cannot  cope without discovering what has happened to her. Even though it costs him everything, even when he realises it will be physically risky, he still makes every effort, uses every contact, however tenuous, to discover what has happened to her. He knows that he is stirring up memories and situations that he has made every effort to suppress, but he is desperate. 

With her usual flair for creating characters and situations that may slowly develop but twist and turn in their revelation, Symon has so much control of the plot that it truly absorbed me. She does not spend time setting the scene and explaining everything, but layers up the suspense brilliantly. There are some dark elements of this story, but they are well handled and necessary to the story. I was so impressed by the character of Max, for whom so much of this book is a revelation of how far he has descended, and the beginning of realising what he must do to change his life in every respect. This is an amazing story, and a well written thriller with real suspense.    

Bound by Vanda Symon – Sam Shephard tackles crime in New Zealand with her usual headstrong instincts

Bound by Vanda Symon

Sam Shephard is a detective in the beautiful city of Dunedin in New Zealand. Beautiful, that is, unless you count the nasty endeavours of certain criminals who want to exploit the city and area with dubious substances and women who have few choices. Sam works in a police department where there are long memories for all of past crimes and present suspicions, so when a vicious home invasion takes place and a man lies dead, Sam must follow her instincts to unravel the truth, however unpalatable that may be. Already up against an imminent family tragedy, she must tackle (sometimes literally) those she encounters who are intent on hiding all sorts of truth. The fourth in a lively series of incredible and well written adventures, this book can easily be enjoyed as a standalone tale of a young woman police officer with an impressive instinct for people and many abilities, not least in terms of self defence. Written with a lively sense of humour as Sam describes everything in her own words, this is a “police procedural” that is compelling and human, a real page turner in all senses. The characters, even seemingly minor in the great scheme of things, leap from the page, while the settings stretch from the beautiful houses of the wealthy to the less salubrious areas of an intriguing city. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the fiercely independent Sam and her friends and family, and to review this amazing book.

The Prologue to this book reveals a nightmare. A woman sits bound to a chair, staring at the body of her husband John, messily dead at her feet. Determined to stay alive for her son, fear and pain overwhelms her. When Sam arrives on the scene later, being the female officer present she is the one to interview Jill Henderson in a long night, featuring the presence of her traumatized son Declan. Contact with her colleagues, apart from her lover Paul, is dominated by the angry and opinionated DI Johns her boss, of whom she says “For whatever reason, he had it in for me, and nothing was going to change that”. The other person of significance, Detective Malcolm Smith, nurses the physical and mental scars of an encounter with a couple of the leading criminals in the area, in which another officer died. As the investigation proceeds, Sam is typically given the least likable jobs, such as searching for the source of cheap masks used in the raid. While the suspects seem to be obvious, Sam’s questioning of many of those involved in the secretive John’s life begins to make her wonder if the answers are a little more complex. Meanwhile, her father is seriously ill, her family are gathering around, and her mother seems to despair of her. As her relationship with Paul continues, her friend Maggie makes an observation that could change everything.

The characters in this novel are so well drawn as to be immediately multi dimensional, as their appearance, actions and gestures are brilliantly described. Sam herself leaps from the page, fully realized as a woman with determination and drive, as well as a touching concern for even those who seem to dislike her. The pace of this novel is well constructed, with human punctuation of eating unhealthy food at odd times and realistic conversations with people of all kinds. There is sufficient action to maintain the excitement throughout this novel, and I found the writing clever without the weight of extra description. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone who appreciates a lively detective novel with an excellent lead character.  

Containment by Vanda Symon – The return of Sam Shephard, police officer of New Zealand


This latest book in the Sam Shephard series is, like the others, a funny, brilliantly descriptive, well paced book with more than its fair share of drama. This book can be read as a standalone, as Sam is a character who tells her own story so well that it is soon easy to pick up the trail of events and her reactions. A young woman with a realistic but slightly grim way of looking at life, she runs a commentary about her colleagues, her friends and her family. Those involved with the stomach turning discovery of the body, though not graphically described, are an interesting bunch of characters, gradually introduced as Sam recovers from a dramatic attack. The variety of people in the area is fascinating, as a seaside resort and small town life collide. As a ship runs aground many people rush to loot the contents of containers which are washed ashore. Tracking down the people responsible and stuff stolen becomes quite a full time job, while Sam struggles with her family and boyfriend. Every character is given a full description in an economical way, and every relationship explained. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 


Sam is actually on a day off when she discovers a horrifying sight; a huge tanker is stranded on the beach and the contents of several containers are strewn across the land, with people in a frenzy. As she approaches some individuals to remonstrate with them, she receives a blow which flattens her.  She is rescued by a concerned bystander, but she soon becomes involved further with her attacker. A unfair allocation of work leads to her being present at the retrieval of a body which kicks off a murder case. Sam encounters some of those who knew the victim, and it transpires that they are quite the variety of people, some with rather dubious lifestyles. Fortunately, she is never easily shocked and takes a robust view of those who would otherwise find them difficult. Not that she finds life easy, with family concerns and romantic pressure.She discovers a lot about diving and  the distribution of allsorts of things, and makes some new aquaintances. Her relationship with her work colleagues is honest and frank, and shows real insight. The descriptions of the places that she visits are memorable, especially the student house which is very nearly indescribable! 


This is a mature and well written black comedy thriller with a strong female character in the lead, able to handle most situations. It presents a  fascinating picture of life in New Zealand, in all its recognisable small community life as well as its normally picturesque coastal setting. As with the other book in the series that I have read, Sam Shephard is a fantastic creation whose impulsive and courageous behaviour makes for exciting reading. Her sense of natural justice is strong and helps keeps the book moving along so well. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a lighter crime novel in a different setting, but with effortlessly familiar emotions.    


This seems a good time to mark International Women’s Day, with a book written by a woman featuring a female police officer. This is certainly not a “woman in peril” novel – if anything Sam is the only one who keeps her head while all around are losing theirs – to misquote a famous piece of poetry quite deliberately!

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon Murder investigation in New Zealand, with a Circus to discover

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon


The South Island of New Zealand is the setting for this powerful murder mystery, featuring the actions, attitudes and realisations of Sam Shephard. After a book evidently narrating her investigations into troubles in a small town, she has now moved to Dunedin, a bigger city with a University and a larger police department. For unknown reasons to Sam, as a young female detective constable, she has earned the antipathy of the bullying DI Johns, who is continually criticising and sidelining her. As this is a first person narrator, we discover how much Sam resents this, and how much her friends both in the force and out of it try to help her endure it. Written with both a keen sense of the dramatic and a sharp sense of humour, this is a novel in which twenty first century policing and relationships are shown in depth. There are some genuinely thrilling moments, as Sam’s farming background demonstrates that she has a toughness denied to city dwellers. There is complexity but also some funny sessions as Sam deals with parental pressures, romance and her friendships with Maggie and her colleagues in the police force. A relatively short novel which packs a real punch, Sam is a real hero in every sense. I was very glad to be given the opportunity to read and review this book as part of a blog tour.


The book opens with the murder of a young Phd student as she evidently places her trust in her killer. When Sam is called to the discovered body, her time guarding the crime scene awakens her curiosity, so her clever dealing with a protest at the newly arrived circus becomes a lesser concern. However, despite her evident abilities and courage she finds herself having to pick up from recordings of interviews what is going on in the investigation, and suddenly she becomes the focus of attention herself as her involvement with the circus forces her into much publicised action.  Alongside her dramatic professional life there are the drawbacks of city life, of parking and coming across other police officers in awkward circumstances. Her friendship with Maggie is the source of much of the undoubted humour of this book, and contributes to Sam’s professional survival in the face of her openly bullying boss. Fortunately, Sam’s strong personality and temper makes sure that she sometimes gets the better of the powers that be, and at least this reader had to suppress a quiet cheer at the brilliant replies that she comes up with when provoked.


This was a fast paced book with plenty of action and a good dollop of mystery. I enjoyed the female led action, and the ending really lived up to the rest of the novel. This is not a heavy read, yet very satisfying on many levels. No knowledge of New Zealand is needed, as many of the elements of this book are universal. It features a strong mystery, together with a fascinating investigation ambushed by the personal obsessions by some of the police. There are interesting observations on circuses, families and relationships. I really enjoyed reading it, and recommend it it as more than a murder mystery; it is a substantial mystery and satisfying read.  


Easter Monday, and the weather is still really good in this part of Britain.I hope wherever you have spent it you have had some time to read some good books!