Characters in Australian rural crime novels clearly do not read Australian rural crime novels. Otherwise they would know that the last thing you should do if you are fleeing the big smoke with a secret is try and hide in a country town. Putting aside the internet as a tool for investigating someone’s sordid history, it is the constant invitations to dinner and locals wanting to know your story and then comparing notes. In Lapse, Sarah Thornton’s debut, Clementine Jones has come to the little Victorian country town, looking to escape her past. But she finds it increasingly difficult to do, both because of the friends who want to know more about her or the enemies that she makes who want something to hold over her.
When the book opens Clementine has been in town for a while. Or at least, long enough to have taken over the job of coach of the local Australian Rules Football team and to have taken them from a forty year losing streak to a real chance of making the finals. Clementine feels she has her life neatly compartmentalised until her star player quits suddenly and for no good reason. Readers know that he has been heavied by some thugs but not why. Clementine, feeling that an injustice has been done, decides to investigate and soon finds herself doing questionable things and coming into the crosshairs of some unsavoury types.
Lapse rides on the strength of the character of Clementine Jones. Readers are clued in early to the fact that she was a lawyer and something happened in her recent past to make her flee the city and all of her connections but the details are kept sketchy. Clementine’s fear of being discovered extends to driving away a couple of old acquaintances who she sees visiting town so they are not able to out her. The problem is that, her dark secret is kept secret even from readers making it difficult to understand why Clementine does some of the things that she does. Jones breaks and enters, blackmails and threatens and, guiltily, uses one of the players with a shady past to help her. All this keeps the plot moving but is hard to reconcile and makes Clementine sometimes feel like a wish-fulfilment character who can do whatever the plot requires.
The mystery at the centre of Lapse is well constructed, and while the bad guys are a little obvious, the interest here is in watching Clementine unravel the plot. The mashing of a crime story involving violence and kidnapping with a underdog sporting resurrection story and a smattering of social commentary works and serves to gives the whole an extra bit of heart. Making the whole package an enjoyable addition to the steadily growing catalogue of Australian rural crime fiction and a very accomplished debut.