Saturday, March 11, 2017


SENSELESS by Andrea Jutson (Black Swan, 2005)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

A small park in a nice Auckland suburb is the least likely spot to stumble across a body. The discovery of a man recently bludgeoned to death shatters the illusion of midwinter calm. 

But unfortunately for James Paxton, death is nothing out of the ordinary. Suspicion falls all too easily on the Englishman who's hiding a secret. Not only did Paxton find the dead man - he spoke to him, too. Gifts he wished he never had are called into play when Mark Bradley begs him to track down his killer, for the sake of his daughter. Paxton's carefully constructed new world threatens to crumble as he is sucked into the hunt for a predator, while the police snap close at his heels. And the corpses keep on mounting, one by one ...

Blending supernatural elements into crime fiction can be dicey. Mysteries were traditionally about deduction, rationality, logic – so incorporating paranormal powers is seen by some mystery readers as a cheat. While authors like John Connolly do it brilliantly, there’s the risk in less adroit authorial hands of the supernatural gimmick overwhelming or over-skewing the crime story. Fortunately, Andrea Jutson avoided any such pitfalls with her impressive debut.

British immigrant James Paxton stumbles across the body of a bludgeoned man in a small park in a pleasant Auckland suburb. Almost immediately, he's got a couple of very big problems – the police consider him a suspect, and the dead man talked to him. After he died.

Paxton is a psychic, but he's no mercenary fortune-teller or television charlatan 'sensing murder' as loved ones desperately search for answers. He's reluctant to indulge his gift, seeing it as more of a curse. But he gets drawn into the hunt for the real killer, upturning his own constrained world.

Jutson strikes a great balance, with Paxton's abilities adding layers to a well-plotted crime tale, rather than obscuring or taking away from the narrative drive. Paxton himself is a fascinating character, layered and flawed, with lots to hint that there's plenty to explore in him in any ongoing series. He has good intentions, but makes mistakes. Despite his paranormal abilities, Paxton's no superman.

In SENSELESS, Paxton alternately works with and gets in the way of Detective Constable Andy Stirling, who doesn't quite know what to make of Paxton, but realises he may be useful. It's a good pairing, and I enjoyed the interplay between various characters. SENSELESS is a pretty dark tale in terms of the crimes and details, but there's a strong vein of black humour too, Kiwi piss-taking between people under stress. Jutson balances the dark and light well.

I also really enjoyed the way Jutson evoked modern-day Auckland life. Having lived there myself in the 2000s, it feels very authentic. She doesn't just reference a couple of tourist sites to give flavour, but rather threads everyday suburban life in the modern city, work and leisure, into her tale.

There's a strong narrative voice, and a good page-turning drive to SENSELESS. It's not without flaws, but overall its a clever crime tale that weaves humour and domesticity through dark events. A very fine debut, and combined with the sequel THE DARKNESS LOOKING BACK - which also impressed me - it demonstrates Jutson is a skilled crime writer, well worth seeking out.

I hope for more from her, sometime in the future.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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